Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Learning is Like Breathing: On Awareness and Evaluation

One of the biggest revelations offered by people who live outside of schools and enforced curriculum is just how effortless, how ever-present, how natural learning can be. People sometimes ask me how I learned a specific thing, growing up, and I often have trouble answering. Both because, by now, my childhood was quite a while ago and my memories aren’t as clear, and also because, when you’re not using a curriculum, the exact mechanics of how learning happens are not always so easy to track.

This is definitely the case when it comes to writing. The short answer is that I just… started doing it, and got better over times as I gained more skill and experience.

Sometimes learning is as natural as breathing, and like breathing, when you become too aware of it, too conscious of lungs expanding and expelling, you can throw it off, start breathing too fast or unevenly, a natural process made complicated through hyperawareness. 


An author who was writing about self-directed learning once offered to pay me to document how I learned a new skill. At first, I agreed, but I quickly found that the act of scrutinizing the process irrevocably changed it, made it into something stilted and self-conscious. Even my own gaze could be turned into something that felt like evaluation, could be made somehow external and detached from self.

There’s a difference between that type of assessment and picking part of the process to offer for critique and observation. It’s a part of life to take a specific result--an essay or piece of art or demonstration--and present it to others for evaluation of some kind, and I have done that willingly, even cheerfully, many times over. It is not the same as intently watching and cataloguing each step, asking over and over is that learning? What about that? And, even worse, finding yourself judging which parts aren’t learning. To internalize that evaluative gaze is to self-police, to place yourself on a narrow track and administer scoldings when you stray too far into the bushes.

I think it’s important, for individual learners and those journeying with them, not to get too caught up in the details of what’s happening right now, if you can help it. It’s one of these things that forms a more complete picture only when looking backwards, when you can see how the different pieces of the landscape came together--a mountain dropping to valley below, that collection of happy little trees--to complete the whole.

I learned to write because I had something to say. Before I was capable of putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard myself, I dictated to my mother, a child’s stories and thoughts laid out neatly in her clear print. Once I could read myself, writing seemed like a natural extension, and my stories and thoughts started to sprawl out far less neatly in scattered notebooks, and soon in Word documents and blogs. I did not consider whether I was writing at “grade level,” I was not compelled to write about what other people thought I should be turning my thoughts towards. I was not entirely free of what Carol Black refers to as “the evaluative gaze of school,” since as she further notes about parents who take their children out of school, “to their grief they may find that the gaze is inside them, and gets to their children through their eyes.” It is, I think, impossible to fully escape it. But I was cushioned from it. Protected, for the most part.

Learning can be as natural as breathing. But a gaze bent on recording and analysing learning, whether it comes from outside of us or is our own gaze turned inwards, has a weight to it, a heaviness that drags everything into its orbit, turns life into something that seemingly can’t function without scrutiny. If we want learning to happen as it should, to be a process owned wholly by the learner, then we must become aware of the evaluative gaze, and put our foot down, raise a shield: on this, you cannot gaze.

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