This blog is going to be messy, a conglomeration of scattered thoughts on a topic that I recognized was an issue throughout my entire history of learning. In the “When Practice Makes Imperfect” chapter in The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer mentions the “inventive transformations of the routine” and follows it up with an example of traditional methods of learning classical piano (24). This example immediately through me back to how I learned pieces for piano recitals. I grew up taking piano lessons. Once a week from elementary school through my junior year of high school, I was at a lesson practicing pieces in front of my teacher that I may or may not have had time to practice during the week before the lesson. I liked playing piano, but I hated piano theory and I hated public performance.
These sentiments mostly stem from how I “mastered” recital pieces and the crash-and-burn experience I had from this method of learning. See, I was a rote memorization learner. I practiced and practiced and practiced until my fingers were on autopilot and my mind had seemingly nothing to do with what was going on with the keys. Rote memorization. It worked at home. It even worked at recitals. Until the one time it didn’t.
One night, while performing in public, my fingers blanked. I simply could not remember the next two lines of music. I sat with my back to audience in utter mortification trying to recall the next notes, but I couldn’t. Though I wanted to get up and flee the room, I was finally able to jump ahead in the piece and finish it, but I had failed. My automaton fingers had failed. My memory had failed. And failure is bad, isn’t it? I had learned the basics of performance and the piece itself in a “rote, unthinking manner” and had become less than mediocre by the end of the process (Langer 14). It took me a long time to even think about performing in public again. I’d still rather not.
I saw this same thing happen to a number of us students in high school. We memorized the facts that needed to be learned, took the test where we may or may not have recalled the memories, and then discarded the memorized facts to make room for new ones. Sometimes, we were successful in this method of learning; sometimes, we crashed and burned. Hard. So while reading the “seven pervasive myths” that Langer lists in the introduction to the book, I saw that I had adhered to at least four of those myths just by how I learned piano alone (2).
I appreciated this section on mindful learning because I think it applies to some of my lessons this week in First-Year Writing. In teaching writing and critical thinking, rote memorization is a little more difficult to come by. Because in many area of the humanities, there are no wrong answers. We don’t necessarily memorize. But when we’re taught writing, we do practice the basics so that “they become second nature” (Langer 2). As my students begin to write their first paper, I want to talk about the difference between high school contexts and college contexts. Example: the five-paragraph essay. It’s taught in high school because of its relative easiness to explain and because of its usefulness in writing the types of essays high schoolers have to write. I mean, a oddly high percentage of my essays in high school were timed. Because that’s real life, right? No. Because that’s the AP Test and the SAT writing section and maybe even the GRE writing section for many of us, if we’re honest.
Though I understand that the difference between college and high school may not be that different for some students, for many it is. Students practice writing this type of essay so often that it becomes second nature. It’s the formula they need to succeed. But writing is so much more messy than that formula. Thinking about how to analyze, organize, and write about new concepts and perspectives takes more time than 45 minutes. Now, in college, the basic five paragraph essay isn’t as useful. It’s actually more confining.The five paragraph essay isn’t wrong; it was appropriate for some people in a certain time. It’s just one way of writing in a certain context. This college context is different, and it’s time for learning to build on itself and evolve. So now, many students will now have break themselves of the basics that have become second nature and try something new.