How I Came to be Slow

I love learning, but I grew up hating school. So, naturally,  I became a school teacher.  I believed I could change the world by changing education, one class, one lesson, one child at a time.  For over twenty years I taught  in urban public schools. I taught nearly every academic subject, from science to social studies, literature to math.  I taught  every level, preschool through grade 12.  Like any teacher, I made significant impact in the lives of the students under my guidance. My career in schools has been rich and varied.  The only dull moments were rare minutes of rest afforded by regular and relentless administration of state mandated standardized tests.

During my twenty-odd years of classroom experience, I continued to love learning, but  I also endured bureaucratic hurdles of nightmarish proportions.

As educators, we were mandated to teach our children to be quick, clean, and ever more like everyone else. This was all fine and good, but it seemed that much of the real learning that took place in my classroom was subversive.  Passionate inquiry, natural to young human beings, is unpredictable and messy.  Learning meanders. Learning isn’t often easily measured. Learning takes place outside of classroom curriculum. Learning is often slow.

I loved teaching, but I love learning more. I wanted to contribute in the areas of arts and writing. Now what?

I left my modest, but comfortably compensated, tenured position to develop my own personal learning plan.  I examined curricula from what I believed to be the best schools in my chosen field (multidisciplinary fine arts) and I found that the most progressive programs tended to be

·       interdisciplinary

·       based on personalized learning plans initiated by the learner

·       situated in “real world” settings

·       guided by mentors who are practitioners in their fields

All this individualized interdisciplinary, learner-based programming sounded great. I was all ready to sign up, until I realized that

·       these programs are expensive.

·       many programs require the students to locate and recruit the engagement of experts who serve as their mentors and instructors.

·       these mentor/experts earn only a small portion of what I would be paying the institution.

·       in the age of the Internet, information is plentiful, accessible, and cheap. Universities no longer are the sole gate-keepers of knowledge.

·       the academic degree, in and of itself, might have little impact on future career options.

The rebel in me wondered: If the student is doing all the initiation and coordination of their own learning, why go back to school? Do I really need those letters behind my name? Couldn’t I hire my own adjunct faculty and advisors? Isn’t it possible to create my own community of practice dedicated to learning?

My experience in teaching in public schools taught me that no one learns completely on their own, least of all extroverted creative types like myself.  Not only would I have to create my own curriculum, I would have to create my own community of learners who would offer me support, critique, and guidance. I would work with my own self-selected mentor/practitioners. I might even have to create my own alternative to those coveted letters behind my name.

I would develop a model for learning that I could put to work for myself, and then offer what I’ve learned about learning to others.

This learning might be slow. It might even take a lifetime.

NEXT: A brief review of my adventures in Slow Learning over the last five years.

A slow learner by any other name may be an expert novice

Today I complained to my highly opinionated son that I’ve been  suffering from a severe case of distractability. I had been reading Jerzy Grotowski’s  Towards a Poor Theatre when I was supposed to be doing a million other things I’d started and hadn’t finished.  I’ve been thinking about how cool it would be to set up a lab where a group of friends would do theatre games and mind experiments. Sounds like a great idea, I know, but I have no expertise in theatre. This is totally out of my field (whatever that is).  How am I ever supposed to get anything done when there is so much to do, so much to try,  so much to learn?jerzy cover

I’ve come to trust John to comfort me in times like these by offering me yet further distractions, suggestions for even more reading and movies and cool stuff to look at online. True to my expectations, John emailed me this reply.

“On being distractable, I just ran across this in a footnote, quoted by Katie Salen (the slow games lady):

Situated learning is …constituted by immersion in meaningful practices within a community of learners who are capable of playing multiple and different roles based on their backgrounds and experiences. The community must include experts, that is people who have mastered certain practices. Minimally, it must include expert novices, that is people who are experts at learning new domains in some depth.

Such experts can guide learners, serving as mentors and designers of their learning processes. (New London Group, 2000, p. 33)

‘Expert Novice’ —  That’s what I am.  Constantly excited (distracted) by the allure of learning a new skill, or entering a new domain.  Not so great at actually doing anything with those skills, but great at learning them.  The term ‘dilettante’ is far too negative, and ‘renaissance man’ is far to arrogant. Until now I haven’t had a good way to express the learning and living style that I enjoy so much. I’m an expert at being a novice, and learning communities need me. So there.  Last night I spent 4 hours learning about VJing.  I have no plans to be a VJ.”

I find it kind of funny that John would say this since I had just told a friend that what I really wanted to do with my life was to be a VJ for wild and crazy dance events. Of course, as with many of my impulses, that too passed.

I know I will forever and will always be an expert novice.  And now, thanks to John and Katie Salen, I can be a little less shy about being one.


Postscript: When John and his sister Liz were little I used to tell them that the Ice Cream Truck was really a Music Truck.  I said that the van that would ride around with kids running after it was just for entertaining us with music. Turns out Katie Salen had a similar idea.  Check out Karaoke Ice. You, too,  can be a novice expert on her site for hours. That is until something else distracts you.