Monday, December 28, 2015

Why People Don't Learn

Learning requires feeling dumb for a while. And that's why people don't learn.

Everyone tasked with teaching anything to adults has ample experience with students feeling anxious and embarrassed for not instantly and perfectly grasping some point or other. It's just not about getting something wrong. It's about the unwillingness to acknowledge or display any deficit at all.

People are accustomed to masking their ignorance and other flaws, but learning requires dropping the mask. And that is horribly, horribly upsetting for most people. So they flail to show both themselves and their teachers that they hardly needed instruction in the first place. Believe it or not, this is incredibly common; the rule rather than the exception. Exactly at the moment when receptive curiosity would serve them best, they're trying to prove how very clever they are.

Children don't do this. Lacking a firm self-image, they're perfectly fine serving as empty cups. That's one reason they learn so easily, while adults are famously incapable of doing so past a certain age. It's not a cognitive problem, it's an emotional one. Learning requires feeling dumb for a minute, and that's just a deal-killer.

This expands on something I previously wrote: I like to be told that I'm being an idiot. This helps me be more of an obnoxious know-it-all. By contrast, most people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots.

More thoughts on impedences of adult learning:
Two Obstructions to Learning
Learn Like a Kid
Gradual, Thorough, Incremental Learning is Obsolete

Also see all postings tagged "education".


sophocles said...

It's not so hard learning a subject I know little or nothing about, its when I have to unlearn something that it hurts. Those well-worn tracks of my assumptions and misunderstandings. One of the joys of travelling is that we become like kids again...

Jim Leff said...

its when I have to unlearn something that it hurts

That's what I don't get.

I don't know anyone who feels like it's all going perfectly; like their engine's roaring at peak efficiency and the world's giving them exactly the result they wanted. Nobody bellows "GLORIOUS!" when I ask them "How's it going?"

In fact, we are fed up, to the teeth. Every New Year's Eve we kiss the previous wretched year in the ass out the door. I have never, in 59 years, heard anyone say "That was a pretty good year!" No, they're all stinkers, every one.

We all have a sense - explicit and/or implicit - that we've misconstrued a bunch of things. We all feel a little confused all the time, like we weren't fully explained the rules of this earthly game, and have only managed to *partially* reverse-engineer it.

So why would unlearning and reconfiguration feel PAINFUL? How can that possibly be the case?

Your experience here surely isn't GLORIOUS and you're not engine-roaring and you don't welcome new years like MORE DELICIOUS CANDY. So something's wrong. And if something's wrong, don't you want a tune-up? Don't you want to question and reconfigure? Plot a new trajectory? Expunge some caked-on delusion and wipe the dusty sprinkle off your windshield?

How is it painful when you're offered some pills that will make you feel BETTER? Why would that clash with a mistaken notion that nothing needed fixing and you were doing just fine, when you so palpably weren't?

I'm not making a rhetorical point. I honestly don't get it.

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