Learner Therapist (59) … Learning by small stepsTorrey Orton
April 19, 2015
What are we thinking patients and students are doing when they are learning a new scheme, a new move, a new thought…? Roughly, they are trying it out. We have lots of experience of trying things out as children. Doing so as adults may be inhibited by self-censoring our playfulness.
The main point is that learning is a cycle of choosing an object of study, imagining it as a whole, attempting it in progressively greater precision and integration, appreciating the closeness of fit between today’s attempt and the imagined whole and re-attempting until inner and outer perceptions match well enough. This inner cycle sits in a larger cycle of a particular learning object’s place in a competent practice (football, music making, etc.), and where that practice sits in a life – and specifically in the life of the learner, both now and in some imagined future of theirs.
Along the way, what’s to be learned changes as the attempts get closer to it!! All together this is a practice cycle, repeated consciously and then unconsciously as long as the object and its user has a life. As therapist and coach we can help at each step.
Here’s a variety of tryouts to contemplate.
Imagine this: you are struck by some person’s manner, style, feeling of being in your world and you want to mimic that style. Your reason for doing so may be to honour it by copying or to mock it – also by copying. Anything can be modelled.
So how do you do it? Possibly by adopting their posture, then their gait and finally their flow – all embodiments of the person (now reduced to a stereotype in our minds!). Or you can start with their voice and a characteristic statement and expression. In any case, you eventually try a sound and get it right or not. Usually you are getting it partly right, and you know that’s what you’ve done. You have it fully right when all aspects of an action are integrated: volume, tone, pace, posture, breathing, movement…
Now, how do you know that? Because you have a memory of their performance in mind… but the memory may be incomplete, distorted in some way, partial like your performance of their performance. So you go back to the original, often easily because they sit next to you in school, church, pub or playground and you don’t tell them you are refuelling your memory.
And you try it again and again…until it’s good enough to be mistaken for them…but it isn’t them, wherein lies the particular joy of a successful mimicry.
40 years ago this process of modelling was commercially formalised in The Inner Game of Tennis (Tim Gallwey, 1974) including the rehearsal and visualisation processes - inner and outer – which I’ve just described in mimicry. It was the beginning of a grand coaching career for Gallwey. Its psychological career is a bit older.
The artist’s self-training at drawing and …
Now let’s shift to a different form of learning – drawing. It is the cheapest form of visualisation, barring drawing lines in the sand. And it draws on the same learning dynamic: a need to represent things visually, the sight of something which asks to be drawn, the step by step creation of the object out of the difference between a line and the paper holding it. This, if you watch a drawer at work, involves repeated looks at the thing, putting pencil to paper for a while, then looking at the thing again and around and around… sometimes they get stuck on a single line because they know from looking that it does not correctly catch the location of the thing in space, to say nothing of not looking like it at all (except to an artistic eye’s look).
….then painting to see what is imagined
But the original of the imagined object, say a flower, has never been seen in that way until the painter is producing it. Here the model …intrinsically ‘unreal’, fake, imaginary… is brought into reality by the brush. Painters I know talk of seeing the image they have in mind by putting their brush to paper. This assumes they already have skill in brush use, colour selection, paint density, paper porosity and so on. They just have to get a stroke of it right to get started and in part they cannot see what’s in mind until they apply the brush.
If they don’t have those precursors then they start with them. Naturally gifted artists start early feeling things, looking, splashing them around…just as the engineering gifted deconstruct and reconstruct their little worlds… and the musical give voice and tap rhythm…. Use of skill cannot be separated from expression of the self in its use.
Writing in the dark…
Or, try this: write a three word note on a small post-it on your night table with no light on, preferably when you’ve awoken naturally in midsleep with a thought on your suddenly conscious mind. This is a fun exercise in your inner sense of space which you can test yourself on immediately. On the way, notice that to write you actually have to think the words letter by letter to get the spacing right, and then you’ll probably get it wrong. Try it printed and in script for comparative purposes. Then repeat until your performance is reliable for data gathering, or just correctly reminding you of what you want reminded next morning!
The writer’s search for the right word…
Writers have stories in mind - their versions of pictures - and editing is the final word! Writers spend more time editing than they do writing, which means writing is more a reflective art than an inspired one and that the editing process is like the painter’s comparing her brush stroke with her inner vision. Notice that the written word is more powerful than the imagined words of an inner dialogue and the spoken word in public more powerful yet. The inner dialogue (rehearsal) is in a safe place and can be worked through with less stress than a public work out. This editing effect is visible even in the most ordinary writing. Try withholding your next email for 6 hours and then re-reading before sending. What do you need to change to get it right?
Aikido 31 kata again!
On my continuing effort to get the aikido 31 kata right, after 10 years of trying…and keep it that way from one session to the next! It is an interplay each training session (approx. 4 times a week) between recalling the correct form in mind and following the body’s lead to it from its previous years of instruction, with a closing reflective pause over the entire sequence before shifting into the next repetition. About 6 monthly I revisit videos of the Sensei performing the kata, as individual bits and integrated series. I imagine that it will take me another 20 years to get to the 30 year performance he produces. And then I remember that he too probably critiques his own performance to this day.