Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Punish the Learner

For those who've been keeping up with Project Ukulele, I found a nice local group that has a uke playalong meetup every 1st and 3rd Monday. We meet in a small coffeehouse that hosts small concerts so there's something of a 'stage' up front.  In months that have a 5th Monday -- like September 2013 -- there's an open mic meeting. People come prepared to perform a song or 2,  and with the smaller group that shows up it's a fun time to share and learn some new songs. 

Last night as we were winding down, and after a good deal of nudging from the man next to her, a woman named Vivian got up on stage. She's been playing for 2 1/2 weeks. Weeks. Before she began she said:

"I took piano lessons for a year when I was six. The night of my recital I walked out on stage in my beautiful blue satin gown my grandmother made for the occasion. We weren't allowed to have music; we were expected to play our pieces by heart. I sat down on the bench and started to play and then -- I couldn't remember what came next. I just froze. And I hung my head. And I remember now how it felt when I looked down and saw big teardrops falling down onto my beautiful new satin dress. I haven't touched an instrument since then."

She put some printed music on a stand, then played and sang a lovely rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah". 

In my work I run into a lot of "blame the learner" mentality: "They can't use the technology, and they don't want to learn, and they don't care, and no matter how many times we go over it they go back to work and do it wrong."  And I recently read -- really --  "There are no learning problems in corporate settings. There are only people unwilling to learn." 

I promise you no one wanted to learn more than 6 year old Vivian. But put a good performer in a bad system and the system will win every time. 

Let's talk about Vivian. She was 6 years old and:
Was expected to perform.
Before she was ready.
In an unnatural setting.

In public.
With "bosses" watching.
By memory.
Without a job aid. 

I suppose you get my point. 

Last  night Vivian was ready to try again. It wasn't quite this, but it wasn't bad at all. And it only took her 56 years. 


Jason Willensky said...

Thanks, Jane. Great anecdote/analogy. If six year-old Vivian faced those environmental and institutional constraints in the workplace, somebody would ascribe her inability to perform to an incompatible learning style.

Anonymous said...

It is never too late to learn! If one desires to learn one can do it...I've seen people start taking martial arts on their 30s-40s and obtain their black belt. I also desire to go back to play my violin at some point when my schedule allows...I will have to re-learn it, since it has been several years since I played the violin and I forgot it all; but it is never too late to learn! One who stops learning stops living! Love, Laugh and Learn! ;-)

Jane Bozarth said...

I agree it's never to late to learn . But it can take a very long time to overcome the damage done by a bad learning experience.

Unknown said...

This is a great story about 'scaffolding' and Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development. At the tender age of 6, Vivian was NOT yet in the ZPD that would allow her both to memorize her selection AND to perform before an audience.[And I suspect that her piano teacher didn't supply the scaffolding support she needed to get her there.]

As a teacher, I always told my students how I suffered from a 'fear of writing' resulting from the C I received in my Freshman English class in college. As a result, I chose to give a piano recital in lieu of writing a senior thesis. [And, despite convention, I gave that recital with the music firmly planted in front of me!]

Anonymous said...

I'm uncomfortable with absolutist statements such as "There are no learning problems in corporate settings." Of course there are learning problems in corporate settings; and unfortunately, there are some people unwilling to learn too.

I've read the OP and I empathise with the context. Indeed, if the culture is not right, or the individual's motivation is low, then technology, job aids, support etc probably won't make much of a difference to their performance.

But that's no excuse to blame the motivated learner! Poor Vivian, she was thrown under a bus. With the right technology, job aids, support etc she would have shone.

Shari Ward said...

I'm going to have buttons made up that same "Blame the learner" with a big red "NO" sign through it. This is my new mantra. Thank you for another thought-provoking article, Jane.