Home Education Magazine
July-August 2003 - Articles and Columns
Flipping the Tables - When Your Children Become Your Teachers - Sue Smith-Heavenrich
I homeschooled my two sons through the fourth grade. "It's OK to not know something," I told them. But by the time we're helping our kids work through long division, how many of us remember what it's like to "not know"?
Learning is not an easy process. To get beyond the not knowing you have to push yourself outside your comfort zone to a place where you feel out of balance, unsure, vulnerable. You have to willingly go to that place where you risk being wrong, where you will probably look stupid in front of your buddies, and where there is a good possibility of failure. It is a scary place to be.
Sometimes we adults forget just how scary learning new stuff is. It is good to learn something new, to become a beginner again and remember what it is like to not know. So when my children asked if I wanted to learn karate, I signed up. I knew nothing about karate.
I also wanted to flip the tables. As black belts, my children were now the "experts." They were helping to teach lower ranks in the karate school and so, I reasoned, they could teach me at home. They did indeed teach me a great deal about blocking punches and self-defense, but they taught me even more about learning.
Readiness to Learn
When my children were young, there was a lot of talk about school readiness. "Does your child know how to count to ten? Recognize the letters of the alphabet? Name the colors?" the school administrators asked parents. As homeschoolers, we never worried about school readiness. Instead, we trusted that our children would learn the things they needed to, when they needed to.
Still, there is something to the idea of being ready to learn. Unlike school readiness, being ready to learn has more to do with how receptive you are to new ideas and less to do with how much you already know. Or think you know.
There is the story of the young man who wanted to study under a Zen master. "I have read many books on Zen," he said, trying to impress the master.
The Zen master began to pour him a cup of tea. He filled the cup, but continued pouring until the tea spilled all over the table and onto the floor.
"Stop!" cried the student. "Why are you doing that?"
"You are like this cup," said the master. "How can you learn when you are so full of knowledge? Come back when you are empty."
Before every karate class we stand in silent meditation for a moment. It gives us time to empty our minds, to stop going over the mental lists we keep, and prepare to receive new ideas.
"Drop your expectations of what you will achieve at the door," says the teacher. "Be open to learning what I have to offer today." That is what being ready to learn is about.
It is important to give our children time to let go of their worries or frustrations and get ready for the next lesson or activity. Yet how often do we find ourselves glancing at the clock, hurrying them to finish so we can get on to something else? Sure, we can cover the material, but are they ready to learn?
Accepting our Learning Styles
I felt so clumsy at my first karate class. My arms were stiff, and when everyone else stepped forward with their left feet, I stepped out with my right. What I needed to know, right then, was that I was OK and that in a couple of days I would get the hang of this and would be doing the same things that the other students were doing.
"I'm a slow learner," I joked to my boys. It's true. It took me a lot longer to catch on to the material. Part of it was the fear that I would injure myself. At 45, I was way older than most of the other adults. Part of it was that, having studied Tai Chi, I simply moved at a slower pace.
"It's OK, Mom," said my children. "We will help you. Everyone learns at their own speed." I needed to hear from my teachers that it is OK to go at my own pace. I needed the reassurance that I am OK, and that my learning style will be honored. If I need this sort of reassurance as an adult, think how much more children need when they begin to learn to read. Or do math. Or play an instrument.
Mistakes are Good
In karate, we learn forms. These are a series of movements that, when performed together, looks a lot like a dance. Though they are the hardest for me to learn, they are the part of karate I love best.
It took me a long time to catch on to the secret of learning forms: be willing to make mistakes. I would learn the first part of a form in class, but by mid-week I would forget half of the moves. Then I wouldn't practice, because I didn't know it.
Finally one of my sons said, "Just practice what you know. We can fill in the blanks later." So I tried that, and discovered that it works. It is better to do something, and do it the way you think it ought to be done, and get corrected later on, then to never do it at all.
"It's like these problems," I tell my fifth-grade math team. "When you're working on a problem, draw a picture and write down the steps. Later on, if you've gone in the wrong direction, we can make corrections."
Mistakes are good. Without mistakes, we can't progress. The trick, in karate and in education, is to correct mistakes in a way that guides us in a positive direction. Corrections that connect the steps help get us from here to there. Our job, as teachers, is to help make the connections.
There is an implicit contract between teacher and student: The student is ready to learn, and the teacher is willing to guide. As a student, I have to trust that my teacher has my best interest at heart. I know my children got tired of showing me the same moves day after day after day after day. But they demonstrated the move again and again, no matter how many times I asked.
"Your elbow needs to be bent more," they'd say. "Pull the fist back." I trusted them to be there when I had a question, and to have the patience and grace to go over the material as long as I needed them to. While I knew they would not rush on to the next thing until I was ready, I also trusted them to nudge me along.
The lessons a student learns are not always the ones you thought you were teaching. I expected to learn how to block a kick and how to twist away from someone grabbing my wrist. What I learned was that showing up is just as important as what you know. You can only learn if you show up and become fully engaged in the moment. It doesn't matter whether it is karate or music or calculating the area beneath a curve--you can't do it if you don't show up.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was letting go. By letting go of my expectations about what I thought I would learn, I opened myself up to learning. When I let go of my need to do the techniques perfectly, I was able to do them.
When I let go of the idea that teachers had to be adults, I discovered two very capable and patient teachers in my own family. "Trust in yourself," they have taught me. "Don't worry about doing it right the first time. Eventually you will get it."
© 2003 Sue Smith-Heavenrich
July-August 2003 - Articles and Columns
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