August 13th, 2012

Learning Isn’t Always Painless


I was looking for a quote I wanted to include in a presentation when I happened on another one that reminded me of an aspect of learning we don’t think about as regularly as we should.

“Probably the most violent and aggressive act that any person can do to other persons is to invade their minds with ideas and twists of meaning which disturb the comforting security of things known and faith kept. Yet this is what I, as a teacher, am required to do.”
– R. W. Packer, “Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Dramatic Presentation” in Teaching in the Universities: No One Way, McGill-Queens University Press, 1974.

It just so happened that I found this quote during a thunderstorm. The sky had filled with fast moving black clouds. When the first wind gust hit the house, my wind gauge jumped from zero to 35. Huge drops of rain first plopped on the deck, then blew sideways, filling the screens with water. It was impossible to see anything but flashes of lightning. The thunder never stopped; only varied in intensity. After the storm, branches, large and small, littered the driveway, yard and nearby fields. The plastic patio furniture was no longer on the deck. Ruts riveted the driveway.

Learning can have the same tumultuous effects. It’s unsettling, disconcerting, and downright frightening to discover that the world doesn’t work the way you thought it did, or that what you’ve long believed isn’t true. After the storm, things don’t look the same. You have to get used to a different world. Worse yet, often what you’ve discovered doesn’t resolve things. It only raises more difficult, disturbing questions.

When painful learning is anticipated, many learners do what they can to avoid it. They hold onto the old ways of thinking, avoiding encounters with new information or denying any new truths that accidentally find them. It just can’t be true. We’ve been doing a lot of that at Penn State these days. Sometimes learners fight the emerging truth. They argue against it, aggressively resisting the facts. That’s happening here, too.

The mental storms created by new ideas and information aren’t always visible and dealing with them on your own is much like being home by yourself when a big storm hits. Disturbing new realities are better confronted in the company of others. It helps to talk about what once was, what now is and how knowing may hurt but is still almost always preferred to not knowing. Our classrooms should be places where students can discuss, not just what they’re learning, but how those discoveries fit with their view of the world and help them find their place in it.

When I was in college, I had to leave behind many of the beliefs I had grown up with. Given what I had learned, they simply no longer made sense. I couldn’t stay there. What I’d learned changed me, forever. And the havoc that storm wreaked was as violent as anything I’ve ever experienced.

These thoughts reminded me of another quote about the painful, powerful effects of learning. It’s a larger vision of the changes prompted by learning but it also sees a powerful interaction between what’s being learned and who’s learning it.

“Part of the job is to get the subject matter to bend and deform so that it fits inside the learner (that is, so it can fit or relate to the learner’s experiences). But that’s only half the job. Just as important is the necessity for the learner to bend and deform himself so that he can fit himself around the subject without doing violence to it. Good learning is not a matter of finding a happy medium where both parties are transformed as little as possible. Rather, both parties must be maximally transformed—in a sense deformed. There is violence in learning. We cannot learn something without eating it, yet we cannot really learn it either without being chewed up.”
– Peter Elbow, Embracing Contraries, Oxford University Press, 1986.