Tag Archives: learning

Playing for misfits

I remember as a small child being taught by my grandmother how to play with a cat. She explained that it wasn’t about winning, that if the cat couldn’t get the string the cat would get bored and not want to play. I think this was my first explicit lesson in why cooperation is better than competition. 

There isn’t much fun to be had in winning against a cat. In learning to cooperate in this kind of play, I learned how to get the most delight out of a bit of string.

Looking back I note that it was one of the few instances of an adult explaining to me what the rules were for a specific sort of playing. As a child, I struggled with playing, which caused me a lot of social problems at school. I had no idea how any of it was supposed to work. I wanted to explore and experiment, and to learn how to do things. I liked imagining stuff, but the kind of communal imaginative role play games that children go in for made no sense to me.

When my son was a child, I got to revisit all of this. I still had no idea how to make certain kinds of play happen. Coming to it as an adult and a parent turned out to be as bewildering and uncomfortable as it had been as a child, only with extra layers of responsibility.

It may seem like an odd thing for a writer to feel, but as a child I did not want to play pretend games. As a teen playing role play games, where the rules are clearly defined, I was comfortable enough. I don’t think unstructured pretend play is actually that unstructured, it’s just that the rules are never explicit, and are intertwined with social standing and confidence. Some children are allowed to make the rules of the game, and change the rules of the game at will. Some are not. I was always in that second category with little grasp of how this first group got its power.

Writing is not like a make believe game. I get to make the rules. Even when I’m collaborating, I get a vote on how things work. It’s not like school where you can be stuck, day after day with people who will punish you – socially or physically – if you don’t play the games the way they want. These days I can at least vote with my feet if I need to.

How we play, who is allowed to play, who decides on the game – these things are all socially informed. How much of that do we learn unconsciously from our environments? Or in my case, fail to learn. We assume that play itself is intrinsic to children, but much of it did not come naturally to me and I doubt I am alone. How we play is part of how we learn, and this all has huge implications.


Making Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Having the freedom to make mistakes is essential to learning, growing, studying, creating and exploring. We hold spaces where people can develop if we allow them to mess up with no fear of blame or shame. It’s not a good idea to make people responsible for anything important when they have yet to learn how things work!

Admitting mistakes can feel painful. However, it’s a really good thing to be able to do. Being able to appreciate someone taking the time to correct and inform you is a blessing. Being able to own errors so as to know more and do better is enabling. 

Humiliating knock backs teach people not to take risks. It can be especially hard on children, who learn not to voice their opinions, and not to try things. If you require people to be perfect, most of them will never even dare to have a try. No one does things perfectly from the outset. It has to be ok to be wrong, inept, ineffective, inaccurate and so forth when you start out.

However, for this to be possible, it helps to have that treated supportively by others. It’s not good to humiliate people for not knowing things. It’s best to assume ignorance rather than malice – especially when you’re seeing errors for the first time. It is totally possible to correct someone without knocking them down – and if it’s done with respect, then the person being corrected is more likely to want to take the new information onboard.

It’s also worth asking whether a person is wrong, or simply different. Is there a right answer there? Is there only one acceptable way of doing things? Might there be reasons for what you’re seeing? Who actually knows what’s going on here? If you’re in a situation where you only have a superficial grasp of things, it’s well worth being alert to the possibility that you might be the one who needs to learn. Are you making assumptions about the other person based on race, gender presentation, age, class, disability or apparent education level? Take a moment to consider those assumptions if you have them. 

If it turns out that you’ve tried to correct someone who knew more than you, then you get to go round this loop from the other side. Will you be gracious in the lesson, or will you double down? We all make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making an innocent mistake because you didn’t have the right information. It’s what we do next that really defines who we are.


Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.


Learning and Punishment

When young children get things wrong, it is because they don’t know better. The younger the child, the more obvious this should be. They may not grasp the cause and effect issues. They may have been curious, or bored – both of which are innocent conditions. If a small child messes up, they need educating, not punishing. 

At some point, a person becomes capable of malice and deliberate cruelty. But what if we saw this primarily as an education problem, not a reason for punishment? I have no qualms about the idea of using short, sharp interventions to reduce the amount of harm or danger in a situation, (better you do something unpleasant than they tease the dog until it bites them, for example) but on the whole, what is punishing a child really about?

Are we punishing them for not having understood why something was important? Should it be their responsibility if they haven’t grasped why something matters?

Punishment has more to do with asserting authority and teaching obedience than it has to do with helping a person learn, grow and do better. Children will tend to respond to arbitrary authority either by increasing their resistance to it, or by hiding better. Punishment leads to fear and/or resentment. A child who has ‘learned’ to behave through punishment is likely to have learned about what to hide to survive, but they won’t necessarily think there’s any other value in what they’ve learned.

I think much the same is true of adults. Punishment does not discourage people from committing crime. Education and opportunity are far more effective on this score. If people don’t understand their rights and responsibilities, locking them up won’t fix that. Punishment doesn’t restore anything to the victim, either. It doesn’t actually achieve much for anyone and it has a high financial and social cost. What punishment does allow, be that at home or in a society, is for some people to have power over other people. Punishment has much more to do with the assertion of power and the reinforcing of hierarchies than it does with solving problems or fixing behaviour.

Punishment teaches that the person with the most power in a situation can dish out punishment on their own terms. The person with the least power is the person it will be easiest to punish. The rich and powerful are often very good at avoiding punishment, while any crime punishable by a fine was only ever intended to hurt poor people. What punishment leads to is the understanding that having power is more important than being right, or good. This does nothing to tackle crimes motivated by desperation. It also fuels the kind of crime that is driven by the desire to have power over others.


Teaching Cats

In the last six months or so I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the impossibility of teaching or training cats. You certainly can’t train a cat the way you would a dog. However, cats learn all the time, and there’s a lot to be learned from that process.

We often underestimate the impact of our own expectations. If we think a cat can’t learn we won’t try and engage with them in that way. It’s worth watching out for the limitations you may unconsciously impose on cats, yourself and other humans.

Cats learn from their environments. They learn how things work, they pick up a fair few human words. Cats are interested in their own comfort, amusement and wellbeing, and will tend to do the things that please them. They respond to discipline with resentment, a perverse desire to do more of the thing they aren’t supposed to do, or if they get sufficiently unhappy, they leave. Attention can be a reward, and we forget that a lot, in our own interactions and around how we raise children. Attention can reinforce behaviour we don’t want if we’re dealing with a being who is hungry for attention. Those of us with abuse backgrounds can have really problematic relationships with attention, too.

Cats are most likely to learn what you want them to learn if they are happy, and have a vested interest. Mr Anderson has learned to walk on a lead because he likes going out and having adventures, and going out is conditional to being on a lead. Once out, it is in his interests to be cooperative because he has a nicer time if we’re all pottering around together. Cats respond well to positive feedback, verbal praise, affection, treats and so forth. Reinforce the behaviour you want to see by giving the cat more of what they want, and the cat will learn how to milk that for all it’s worth. Everyone wins.

It is easier to coax a cat round to a different behaviour with lures and treats than it is to get them to stop doing something they thought was interesting. This tends to be true for people as well.

Cats are never going to do your bidding. They can however learn to be cooperative members of your household. I think there’s a lot of similarity between raising kittens and children. Yes, you can focus on obedience. Yes, you can frighten them into doing and not doing things. No, they will not be happy, and they will get out and stay away as soon as they can. When teaching is about living cooperatively, cats can and will learn. When what we mean to teach is that we have all the power over them, most creatures won’t find us tolerable.

Teaching is not about making someone do stuff. Put that idea down, and all manner of things become possible.


Learning to learn

At no point in my life did anyone teach me how to learn. How do you learn a dance routine, or a dance move? How do you learn a piece of music, or spellings for a test? I have some very early memories of being frustrated by not knowing how to do something and just being shown the same thing that hadn’t made sense to me in the first place. I have memories that go from there to my twenties of being expected to learn from having seen something once, or somehow just by magic.

Learning how to learn was something I had to figure out by myself. Without that, you’re limited by what you can do naturally and easily. You’re limited to what’s obvious to you.

Of course it’s tricky because everyone has different things they need to work on, different ways of working, and will learn in different ways. Some of us need theory first before we dive in. Some of us learn best by observing and copying. Some of us need step by step guidance on what to do. And it may well not be the same across all our areas of learning. I’m good at learning patterns of physical movement and I can learn that by watching and copying. I can’t learn a language that way, and I need a lot more technical input to work on my art or music skills.

This is a huge consideration for anyone who makes teaching work part of their Druidry. Students will be different from you. What they want to learn and what you most want to teach won’t always neatly align. How they learn can be varied indeed. How much of a student’s needs can your teaching style accommodate? What do you do when faced with someone who does not know how to learn?

A student who is frustrated and who seems to make no progress can be really annoying to deal with. Quick students who pick up what you say are rewarding to the ego of the teacher, and affirming of your teaching skills. But really it is what happens to the struggling and less overtly talented student that measures you as a teacher. Can you teach them in ways that actually enable them to learn? Can you engage and find out what sort of process they need to take them forwards, rather than hanging on dogmatically to methods and content that suits you?

I remember one Druid teacher presenting me with a meditation that I was to do. It made no emotional sense to me and was at odds with my notions of sacredness to the point of being distressing. No alternatives were offered. It was work I was told I had to do, and not doing it in the way described was, it was made clear to me, disrespectful to my teacher and to my teacher’s teacher. Looking back at that exercise many years later, having studied Druidry with OBOD and done some mentoring myself, I have no doubt that the exercise was the problem and it was totally inappropriate for me, and that this mattered.

There’s quite a challenge in figuring out what you, or anyone else needs to learn in the first place. It’s an important question to ask, and to keep asking. This is not an area of personal growth where it is fair or productive to assume that we all need the same things. What lessons do you need to learn? What tools do you need to be given? What skills do you need to develop? What kind of teaching will help you and what are the best ways for you to engage with your learning?

And to anyone who has struggled with learning, let me say it may not be your fault at all. Good teaching teaches what the student needs, not what the teacher wants to hand out. Good teaching helps you overcome barriers and go beyond whatever innate talent you have. Good teaching enables you to grow and develop on your own terms. If you’ve not had that kind of experience, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn the things, it probably means you need better resources.


Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.


Learning to learn

I’ve recently dedicated myself to a fairly ambitious learning project, and it’s made me aware of a number of things I have going on around learning and intelligence. When it comes to other people learning I have a clear understanding that room to make mistakes is necessary to the process. However, when it comes to me I have this feeling that I should be able to see something once and then know it, or be able to do it perfectly thereafter. In reality, learning is a process, and it takes a while to get things to stick in your head. What I’ve learned about learning – as it applies to me – is clearly rubbish.

Cleverness is often measured in terms of speed – that’s inherent in taking exams. To get something quickly may be seen as evidence of being a good and clever learner, and it may seem to reflect well on the teacher. In practice, learning is just showing up and doing the work. It’s just time and effort – it helps if you have good resources and guidance, but even if you don’t, time and effort can get a lot done. Cleverness and speed, without determination and application, doesn’t lead to much.

To go from seeing to doing is a leap. It takes time to build body knowledge – that might mean your hands developing the muscle memory for the shape of a tune. It takes time to learn exactly how a specific sort of pen, or paint works. The odds are that on the first go, you won’t perform a dance move in the best possible way. It takes repetition to build insight, familiarity, understanding and to find out how best to do it as yourself. But apparently I think I’m supposed to be able to do everything perfectly at once.

This is a story I have been told. The consequence of this story is not that I feel clever when I get something immediately – because that almost never happens for me. It means I feel stupid when it takes me a few goes. I feel useless when I forget things I’ve been trying to learn. I feel inadequate. I’ve spent the last three weeks fighting these feelings, telling myself the things I would say to anyone who was my student: it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s part of the learning process. It takes time to really consolidate learning and properly embed it. You are doing ok, just keep going over this and you will get it. And, after three weeks, I have learned how to draw and read the characters of the Japanese Hiragana writing system. It’s not exactly an alphabet, it’s phonetic. It was all graft – there’s no innate skill here, no natural gift and that’s fine because learning is mostly about graft.

Intelligence isn’t about effortlessness, it is about being able to effectively apply what you know. Intelligence isn’t about magically knowing things no one has taught you. That’s simply not how anything works. It’s nice when something makes sense quickly, but that’s all it is. It isn’t a measure of anything. How fast you can take something and apply it effectively may be a measure of something, but it’s not the only measure.


What is a child?

What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.

There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find).  It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.

However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.

When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.

One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.

Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?

It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.

A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.


The right to make mistakes

For me, there is a world of difference between carelessness and needful mistakes. To get something wrong because you weren’t paying attention, is negligent and people should be held to account for that kind of thing. However, an honest mistake is a different consideration. An honest mistake comes from acting on insufficient information, most usually, or as a consequence of not having fully developed some relevant skill.

Without the freedom to make mistakes, it is difficult to learn anything. Only when we can make mistakes do we have room to explore and experiment. It’s not always obvious what will work, or what will suit us. Maybe you don’t know what kind of job you should have, or whether you should live in a yurt, or if you’ve found the perfect person to spend your life with. When we judge people harshly for making life choices and then regretting them, what we’re telling each other is that we shouldn’t take risks, move outside our comfort zones or do anything unfamiliar.

If you are drawn to the most obvious way of life and want the kind of job a five year old can understand, then it’s ok to go through life never making mistakes.  If your soul’s calling is a branch of the sciences that you didn’t even hear of until your thirties, how are you to know? If your yearnings are for something unusual, you may not have words for your desires, or any idea of what you crave until you encounter it in person. It is hard to make good life choices when you’ve never seen the thing that you will turn out to most want.

The narrower your life and experiences are, the less chance you will have at making good choices. The more diversely you experience, the more scope you will have for knowing what you want before you have to make firm decisions about it. If you live surrounded by people who are free to make mistakes and explore possibilities, you’ll know a lot more about your own options. If the people around you don’t feel allowed to make mistakes, you’ll see far fewer options playing out and you won’t know what might be available to you.

Too often, we frame integrity as consistency over time. We don’t allow ourselves to change in light of new information and experience. You can think you are one thing, or want one thing, and only find out that was a mediocre choice for you when you run into a real alternative. We also need the space to go off things. No one should be tied to their early choices. Consistency might make us more predictable and less work for each other, but freedom to change allows us to grow.  The choices we make when we are young may not be right for older versions of ourselves, and being able to let those go as mistakes and move on, is really helpful.

A mistake is not a failure. It’s a point a change, an insight and an opportunity. Mistakes can be where we learn most about who we are and what we want. Freedom  to admit when things didn’t work and to go on and make new and different mistakes, is truly liberating. I do not think our integrity lies in our consistency, but in our commitment to finding what we most need to be and how we should live. It shouldn’t come down to a handful of early choices. Life should be more of an adventure than that.