deep-learning


I have never been good with my hands. All my life, my hands have seemed like interlopers with the wrong set of wiring. That smooth connection between hand and brain that graced seemingly everybody else never failed to catch my notice or inspire my dismay. I was horrible at sports, at art, at playing instruments–all those finer things in life might as well have been within the reach of the next galaxy. I accepted long ago that I’ll never roll over Beethoven or know what it feels like to hit a home run.

But, when my arthritic grandmother sat me down a couple of years ago with a crochet hook and bit of cheap yarn from Wal-Mart, things began to change. To my surprise, within a month I had made 2 afghans and a legion of scarves and hats.

I began to notice knitters everywhere–especially the really experienced knitters who glided through complicated patterns like poured milk. With sometimes four or five needles sticking out of their project and only 2 hands to negotiate the working yarn, all the loops, the points of the needles, and the masterpiece itself, all of this while working through a series of unforgiving combinations of stitches, well–my sense of accomplishment sort of fizzled. My sense of limitation grew along with the renewed awareness of my clunky hands. How do they do that???

One fine day in October, I bought more needles and books than I could ever need and sat down to finally face my opponent. I expected it would take months (if ever!) to be able to work the simplest stitch, but once again–to my surprise–within two weeks I had finished several projects. Two months later, nearly all my hand-knit Christmas presents are made and ready to be wrapped.

It is beginning to dawn on me how profoundly flimsy those gargantuan obstacles to learning are. The palimpsest-effect is so very strong: the erasures of possibility enacted by our own habits of thinking are self-reproducing, self-tracing, and self-limiting. But, throw away the palimpsest, and take out a clean page–why, anything is possible…

In a workshop at Faculty Academy yesterday, Barbara Ganley drove home a message she had delivered with no little conviction during her plenary presentation. Borrowing a poignant phrase from E.M. Forrester (“how do I know what I think until I see what I say?”), she judiciously argued that every teacher should be modelling the process of thinking, of becoming, of deep-learning through writing. How can we use the social dynamic of a community, she poignantly asked, to encourage narrative reflection that moves through “cycles of disruption and repair”?

One of the best-kept and endemically experienced secrets in academia is that we scholar-teachers tend to fear exposure. We fear being proven wrong. We fear flopping under scrutiny. And, good heavens, we most certainly fear doing so publicly! Barbara encouraged her audience “to fail, oh, to fail gloriously and (*gasp*) in front of our students!” Why? Because failing leads to a sensation of utter disorientation and of dismay. In an exercise in the workshop, she led us to reveal to ourselves that disorientation and dismay are exactly the experiential prerequisites for deep learning, and if we are not life-long learners, how can we expect our students to be?

Some friends of mine (most notably Pedablogy and Gardner Writes), have been encouraging me to jump off the dock and say something–anything–publicly and for the record. I confess, the thought of doing so has inspired no little trepidation on my part. What could I possibly have to say that anyone at all would care to read about? To paraphrase Wodehouse’s most inimitable Jeeves, it seems a given to me that I am in real danger of generating material that would be better put aside to be read at some later date along with the gas bill.

Whether it is whimsy or courage or inspiration that wags its finger at my lesser inclinations, I am here to join the “caravan” into the company of which Gardner has aptly and with “senses variously drawn out” invited me.