Opinion: New Year, new learning

The typical New Year’s resolution bristles with negativity, like the deprivation of going on a diet or the rigor of serious exercise. Why not instead, I mused, resolve to learn something new, in a more positive approach for the New Me in 2023?

I reflected on what have been my own peak learning experiences and quickly realized that they, too, bristled with some negativity, or at least, with novelty. They occurred when I was out of my comfort zone and forced into a new role.

As a career educator, lots of my important learning was about the process of learning itself. Years ago, I enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Columbia University. My first linguistics class left me dazed and confused, even though I had studied linguistics as an undergraduate, when I had been only somewhat confused. In this class, I understood nothing, and I immediately abandoned the whole course of study, saving my one-week student ID as a memento of folly and failure.

Years later, on parents weekend at my daughter’s college, I attended a class on “ice,” in one of her courses as a geology major. Again, not a word or concept landed in my brain, except this time, I could just leave the classroom and never have to think about ice again.

Both times I tasted failure, I who had always been a confident, high-performing student. A teacher and then school administrator, these experiences guided me ever after because I knew the feeling of hopelessness, when I had no mental constructs upon which to attach new ones. I could sympathize, in my bones, with the child not exposed to books at home, or not speaking English.

Professionally, I realized that I learned more at conferences that were slightly outside of my own particular area of ​​expertise, which was first and second language acquisition. For example, workshops in the field of challenging so-called “gifted” children featured creative ways to promote learning for all children and were helpful in designing curriculum. The theories about language learning, I had already studied in graduate school and put into use every day.

Concerned that my special-needs son’s classes in his new high school might not be appropriate, I arranged with the school to follow his class schedule with him, for one full day. My takeaway? High school is boring! I could hardly sit still, my mind wandered, and I couldn’t wait to leave. And I didn’t have the excuse of adolescent hormones.

One day in the urban school system where I worked for 35 years, the secretarial and support staff were going to be away for a training session. The top administrators would fill in for them. (Don’t think that didn’t ruffle some feathers.) I replaced the superintendent’s receptionist, including answering his phone.

What did I learn? Phone call after phone call was about the buses. “Where is my kid’s bus?” “Why can’t they keep a schedule?” I have to get to work. The parents weren’t asking if our reading program stressed phonics or a whole-word approach. They wanted to see their child get to school and then get back home. I felt the parents’ frustration, and I had been unaware that this is what the superintendent dealt with all day every day.

Another peak learning experience, apart from the professional arena, was rafting through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River, a multiday trip with my brother as captain of our raft. It was scary, dangerous, wildly beautiful, and not to be repeated by me, but not to be forgotten, either. The trip was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but I did it and I’m glad I did.

Thus my enthusiasm to “learn something new in the new year” has been tempered by the realization that it won’t be easy. And learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby will involve feeling inept at first: I won’t be good at it and I will have to practice.

It is not a novel idea that some discomfort or a new role or failure or a blocked path can lead to learning and may even be a requirement. In her later years, Mary Tyler Moore told an interviewer, “I’ve come to the point in life where I don’t have to work. I work because I enjoy it. I only enjoy doing things that frighten me a little bit.”

Leonard Cohen sang the oft-quoted lines “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Or, “No pain, no gain.”

And there is the conundrum for learning in the New Year. Can I find or create or embrace what is difficult or scary or awkward, and learn from it? How? And when?

Thank you, 2023. Your arrival has at least raised the questions.

Kathryn Hill lives in Madison.

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