learning: one twirl at a time


My daughter loves to twirl and jump in her best approximation of how she thinks a ballet dancer moves. Her audience is always appreciative, or at least gives indications of this being the case, and she now regularly refers to her future career as a ballet dancer.

Yet when I ask her if she would like to learn how to ‘ballet’ as she calls it, the word dance not encapsulating, in her view, the full spectrum of what a ballet dancer might actually do, she looks at me affronted. ‘Mummy,’ she says, her voice tinged with disapproval, ‘I already know how to ballet. I don’t need lessons.’ And it’s hard to disagree with such certainty, although I worry. Should I tell her that sometimes her moves remind me of the death throes of a wounded animal?

Alas, I suspect that until she acknowledges for herself that perhaps there might be one or two things she could learn, she will not listen to me - why start now, in fact? But not all hope is lost, as recently she started asking me about learning piano, and is keen to start lessons after the summer holidays. Months of listening to me teach other children has obviously whetted her appetite – it’s hard to believe this is the same child who six months ago wanted to show me how to play: “Don’t be silly, Mummy, you do it like this!”

When it comes to learning a new skill, we can’t progress until we first acknowledge that there is something to be learnt and recognise that we do want to learn it. Children are often inspired by nothing more than seeing other kids doing something that looks like fun. But, as adults, we weigh the pros and cons, balancing the time and resources required against the possible enjoyment and, crucially, the hoped for end result.

Learning styles
We each have our own preferred learning style. Some of us jump straight in, itching to get our hands dirty. Some like to wallow in the theory and the what-ifs, preferring the thinking to the doing. For others, the fear that a new skill will remain forever elusive is enough to prevent them from starting something new. We pride ourselves on being capable and professional, so starting from square one can be disconcerting. Make a mistake and we cringe, often becoming increasingly fearful of the next mistake and the one after that. And then there are those for whom the greatest enjoyment comes from the process. While speaking perfect German or being able to play a Mozart sonata would be wonderful, it’s the lessons, the interaction with a class or a teacher and the sense of discovery that are the greatest sources of enjoyment.

And this, of course, is the way it so often is for young children. Picking up a new skill is an adventure and can seem, to our envious eyes, so effortless. Their eagerness to see what comes next, their joy at each new find and their pleasure in being able to share their new discoveries with others will usually outweigh any concerns they might have about making mistakes. They want to learn and to have fun and will use whatever tools they have at their disposal to help them achieve this.

Stages of learning
When we learn a new skill we start from nothing and move towards the gaining of enough knowledge, experience and confidence to perform at a higher level. Since the 1970’s theorists have talked of four main stages of learning through which a learner passes when acquiring a new skill. Sometimes attributed to Abraham Maslow, a famous American psychologist, the four stages are as follows:

1. Unconscious Incompetence: ‘we don’t know that we don’t know’
This is the level for my daughter and her ballet dancing. She has no idea of the breadth of skill required to become a competent dancer. She dances in ignorant and wonderfully awkward bliss.

2. Conscious Incompetence: ‘we know that we don’t know’
I long for the day my German skills are at the stage of level four (below), but for now I languish between this level and the next one, all too aware of what I don’t know, and striving valiantly to make sense out of what I do know.

3. Conscious Competence: ‘we work at what we don’t know’
Anyone who has ever learnt a language or how to play a musical instrument enters this stage eventually. Reaching a higher level in any skill requires effort and persistence. Conscious effort is necessary to recognise what it is that requires practice and to then effectively and continually improve.

4. Unconscious Competence: ‘we don’t have to think about knowing it’
And then finally, you sit down at the piano and just play, your mind not focusing on each and every note, or you enter into a discussion without realising you are actually speaking in German. You hop in the car and drive away or ski down the black runs without pause. Your daughter rides her bike down the street while singing a song or your son jumps into the pool and, his mind full of submarines, ploughs his way from one end of to the other, arms and legs propelling him through the water.

Our progression through the stages is not always in one direction. Often we move backwards and forwards between the levels, and sometimes are not even aware of how much we have learnt until it is pointed out to us. For small children, of course, this movement is not a problem. Consideration of levels of difficulty and of the possibility of failure is not usually something they worry much about. I listen to my daughter chatter away in Swiss-German and I envy her relaxed attitude. She makes plenty of mistakes, yet it’s not a problem. She issues orders, tells jokes and makes up songs, and if she doesn’t know a word simply substitutes an English one with a German ending. Yet at the same time she is learning to confidently speak a language that is not her mother tongue.

Perhaps, as grown-ups, we need to trust in ourselves a little bit more, and learn to let go of our need to always be in control of the learning process. If it means the difference between saying nothing at all and at least saying something, then it can also mean the difference between making that first step into integration into a new community and never having the courage to enter into conversation for fear of sounding like a fool. And as I tell my music students, it’s also okay to just enjoy playing without always focusing on what you can’t yet do or what you should be doing. What is the point of learning something if you never get the chance to just enjoy it?

I know there will be too many times in the future when my daughter will have to prove herself and be measured against other children and her own past performances. But, for now, learning is such a pure process, its focus on exploration and discovery, and she approaches it with a simple trust, in both herself and those around her. Stepping foot on the moon or scaling the highest mountain is nothing when compared to a young child’s pleasure at satisfying their curiosity and understanding just a little bit more about how their world works.

I will continue to watch with interest and pride as my daughter tackles each new task she sets for herself and those that are set for her. And I will continue to watch each ballet performance when she asks, and clap and murmur appreciatively as if part of a much larger audience. And maybe, just maybe, I will get up and twirl with her.

For more information on the four stages of learning and learning styles, try the following sources:
Entwistle, N. J., 1998
Styles of Learning and Teaching, Taylor and Francis Ltd, London.
Illeris, K., 2008
Contemporary Theories of Learning, Taylor and Francis Ltd, London.
Riding, R and Rayner, S., 1998,
Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies: Understanding Style Differences in Learning and Behaviour, Taylor and Francis Ltd, London.