Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Art of Learning

A quick and compelling read. I gobbled this book up one day last summer.

My pal Bruce Gibbs loaned me a copy of The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin. You may know something about Josh; he was the subject of a book and movie about a chess prodigy written by his father, Searching for Bobby Fischer. After his achievements in the world of chess, he turned his attention to Tai Chi Chuan earning the title of world champion.

In this book Josh reflects on what is required to achieve at the highest levels. His thinking is a fertile blend of western determination and eastern mysticism. This list of the titles of his chapters suggest the flavor of the book: "Losing to Win," "The Downward Spiral," "Beginner's Mind," "Making Smaller Circles" "Using Adversity," "Slowing Down Time," "The Illusion of the Mystical," "Searching for the Zone."

Waitzkin aptly describes what it feels like to lose oneself in the zone and merge with the activity at hand. Some passages in this book read as if written by Zen master Dogen; other passages read more like self-help books that fill bookstores these days. Waitzkin offers suggestions about how to travel into "The Zone."

He emphasizes living in the moment. Here's Josh to speaking for himself:

We don't live within a Hollywood screenplay where the crescendo erupts just when we want it to, and more often than not the climactic moments in our lives will follow many unclimactic normal, humdrum hours, days, weeks, or years. So how do we step up when our moment suddenly arises?

My answer is to define the question Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin Years pass in boredom, but that is okay becuase when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and we wouldn't even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday—the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life's hidden richness—is where success, let alone happiness, emerges.
Finally, for any teachers who might happen to this blog, Waitzkin discusses the distinction between entity and incremental theories of intelligence. Teachers strongly influence their students, and the best ones emphaisize process, effort, and a problem solving style that welcomes setbacks as learning opportunities. Lesser teachers simply praise students, "Way to go! Awesome job! You're so smart!" They don't recognize how their well-intended feedback harms students when their efforts fall short. In this, Waitzkin echoes Alfie Kohn in regard to the corrosive influence that a teacher's praise has upon his students.


Bonnie, Original Art Studio said...

Dan: Thank you, this is just the sort of book I would love - will check it out.

Child psychiatrist Winnicott speaks of creating a holding environment for a child, where the child can follow his/her own process. He is not speaking of the classroom, but one can infer that Winnicott sees excessive praise as interfering with the child's process and ultimately setting the child up to become dependent on praise - or to not see the value in their work if their is no praise. (I am actually thinking of doing a post on Winnicott.)

richard nichols said...

Would you comment a little on how this might play out for we older folk. Small children are very impressionable but we elders might feel that we can't learn in the spongelike way kids can.

steven said...

hi dan, reading this and then bonnie's comment i'm drawn to share a similar concern i have had for some time about the dependancy children have on praise that is trained into them at an early age by adults wanting to see in their little dependants something of what they wish people saw in themselves. i tell my students that the process of "learning" in "school" is a modicom of the process of learning about who you are. so better to be connected to something that is not an externalization of the quality of your work but to feel it from within yourself. we know when something is our own best work. this brings up the whole bugbear of assessment. but i'd better not go there just yet!!! thanks for sharing this book dan. i'm always looking for something to ground my intuitive approach to my work. steven

Delwyn said...

Hi Dan
this is a good topic. I always have thought that the effect of non verbal acknowledgment of kids and others is grossly underestimated. I liked to teach kids that we can offer empathy, encouragement, support and acknowledgment through a look, a smile, a nod, an appropriate touch, body language...sometimes there are just too many words said...and it all becomes loud noise...and kids then learn to look for wordy praise...sometimes we can do with less talking...

Happy days

Dan Gurney said...

Bonnie, I hope you'll do a post on Winnicott. I've not heard of him before. But yes, I'm sure there are lots of people out there who've figured out that praising a child can get out of hand and become harmful to them. Kohn has given the clearest exposition of this I've read but Waitzkin does a convincing job too.

Dan Gurney said...

Richard, praise would work in much the same way for adults as it does for children, but I think adults are probably somewhat less vulnerable to it.

But, say if in learning golf all someone ever said to you was "awesome swing" "you're a sensational putter, Richard" or "you drive really well" you'd realize you haven't learned much from that feedback beyond pleasing the speaker. And then when you miss a putt, then what? Well, if you're a kid, you might think, "I'm a crappy putter."

Judgmental feedback is not as useful as other forms of feedback, like descriptive and/or prescriptive feedback.

Dan Gurney said...

Hi Steven,

Your comment touches upon the distinction between education and training. Each has their place in the world. An educator "draws out" learning mostly by providing situations/opportunities for students to create and grow. The movement feels from inside out.

Trainers have a different mission: to teach people specific skills from outside in.

As a kindergarten teacher I'm both an educator and a trainer. I enjoy education far more than training, but especially early in the school year I do my share of training, like how to line up, how to wash the dishes, how to put away materials, etc.

Dan Gurney said...


The point you make is one I've made at keynotes I've given at kindergarten conferences, and it's especially true for boys in kindergarten. We verbalize too much with boys when a simple non-verbal communication is more efficient and effective.

As for verbal feedback, descriptive feedback tends to be more useful and helpful than praise or pointers, in my opinion.