Sunday, May 11, 2014

It's hard being bad

When did you last feel completely incompetent? I’m not talking about momentary incompetence, like when you had to ask someone to open Fort Knox packaging. I’m talking about learning something completely new and not even knowing where to start, or tripping up over and over whilst everyone else seems to be getting the hang of it.

As a bit of a nerd who loves learning, I can devour educational readings faster than Homer Simpson does doughnuts. Put me in in a discussion or debate related to education and I’ll run circles around a lot of people. I can whizz my way around a computer too, a bit of troubleshooting here, some photoshop there and some e-learning too. I feel confident in my understanding of the nature of science, evolution, genetics and a few other science things. I build my understanding of new ideas quickly and easily without breaking a sweat. I make new connections fast. I am reflective, and I am good at identifying where and when I need to improve. Yet, despite having all these characteristics of what one might consider a good learner, I was reminded on Wednesday of the intense emotions associated with being a beginner learner. What's more, I was the kid in the class who knew the least.

My family moved to New Zealand in 2000. I attended a decile 10 school on Auckland's North Shore. My first experience of learning Māori was at teachers college for about four weeks, a total of 5% of my grade. And so, since I just don’t know enough about Māori language or culture to effectively teach my students how to honour the bi-cultural partnership in New Zealand, I decided to do something about it. 

Leoni, our exceptionally warm and skilled Māori teacher included me in her class as a student on Wednesday. I had to ask questions, and clarify my understanding. I had to ask the students for help because I could't remember how to begin my sentences. Or mid way through, I would suddenly forget what the next word in the sentence is, and then again, I would have to ask the student with whom I was partnered for help. I had to ask Leoni for help multiple times too, and ask her for clarification and guidance. Even though I theoretically know how difficult it is for students who struggle, students who have low literacy, students with learning difficulties, as an adult, it has been a long time since I could so completely emphasise with that feeling of complete and utter incompetence. There is an intensity to knowing that you are worse than everyone else in the class at something. It is uncomfortable, embarrassing and for many people, debilitating.

As I was reminded of just how intense learning can be, I was also fortunate in knowing that this was an invaluable experience that stressed to myself the empathy that I need to show those students in my class who are struggling. I could very easily not return next week to this class. Just as so many students wag class because they too have felt uncomfortable and embarrassed. I am fortunate in that for a long time, I have been working towards a growth mindset as described by Carol Dweck. Many of our students do not, and we need to help them develop this.

So, the week one hackyrclass challenge goal is beginning to develop a growth mindset. So I challenge you to go along to learn something that you know that you will be terrible at, simply because it will challenge your growth mindset and give you empathy for those who are still in the throws of developing it. And while you are doing that, I will go back for round two of Māori, so that at least I can be the top of the class student when it comes to persistence!