By Serena Zhang
At this point in my life, I don’t really consider myself an expert at anything. Sure, I’m vaguely knowledgeable about certain topics: Broadway musicals, mahjong and making dumplings. I’m even good at a few things too, such as writing, getting by on less than five hours of sleep a night and eating dumplings.
Although I can’t claim to be a deep well of wisdom, there is one thing that I thought myself pretty good at, having done it for all my life thus far: learning.
I’m pretty familiar with learning. Every year since I waddled into preschool, I’ve been required by law (and my mom) to learn. From my ABC’s to “Crime and Punishment,” school has been an endless squeezing of information into my brain. It’s almost monotonous at this point – you listen to lectures, take notes, cram for exams and forget nearly everything the day after. Repeat ad nauseam.
All the while, you feel as if you’re making some sort of progress, like maybe if you trudge through enough p-sets you’ll eventually end up somewhere closer to the elusive gates of success and fulfillment.
But are you really challenging yourself? Pushing your own limits, the reaches of what you’re capable of, not just intellectually but wholly, bodily? This kind of learning is, for lack of a better word, safe. Passive. Sure, it’s not always easy. Many sleepless nights can account for that. But it’s familiar and soothing and we know exactly what’s expected of us and how to play the game. Other people give us the information and we swallow it, maybe let it knock around a few times on the way down.
Until a few weeks ago, I thought that was all there was to learning. Little did I know I was in for a slippery surprise.
Over winter break, I decided that I’d like to learn how to ski, mainly because my dorm’s ski trip was coming up and I didn’t want to be the only one awkwardly making snow angels off to the side while the rest of my dorm skied their way to the Olympics. I thought, “Hey, no big deal, just a few lessons and I’m on my way to being the cross-country equivalent of Yuna Kim.”
Oh, boy. Well, I did learn to ski eventually, if learning meant falling on my butt every two minutes and bruising my tailbone. I spent two days at Mt. Hood taking private lessons and ended up switching to a different instructor on the second day because, apparently, the first person wasn’t licensed to teach cross-country skiing at the center.
“Never mind,” I had thought. Second time’s the charm. Right? Ha ha ha … ha … ha. In a feat that almost defies logic, I managed to fall even more on the second day. After 15 minutes or so of gliding flailing on the snow, my instructor, convinced I was ready to handle more advanced stuff (I wasn’t), took me to one of the trails that made a big loop around the ski center.
Like a baby bird pushed out of the nest, I too was forced into a near-death experience before I was ready. Except I wasn’t as cute or chirpy about it, and instead of a swooping, miraculous flight at the last second, I crashed. Hard. Many, many times.
I’m not kidding when I say that I spent more time sprawled out on the ground than standing up. It was probably the most humiliating and physically draining task I’ve ever undergone, and several times I considered taking off my skis and walking back. But for some unknown reason, I kept getting right back up, knowing I’d wipe out again as soon as I walked another dozen steps. Blame my stubborn belief of seeing things through to the end.
I really should have just called it quits, though, as it turns out the trail we were supposed to complete in under an hour instead turned into a three-hour ordeal. Part of it was just the fact that I was a slow skier, and part of it was the offhand comment my instructor made halfway through that she may have forgotten how long the trail was. My family was probably panicking back in the warm comfort of the car. I imagined my popsicle body being helicoptered out of the woods, a frozen dollop of bird poop in my hair.
You might think I was being melodramatic, but there were moments I honestly did believe I was never going to make it back. There were about three times more hills than we anticipated, and for half of them, I would be almost at the top before I’d slip and fall all the way back down.
When the little beige building of the ski center finally came rising up in the distance like some sort of architectural Messiah, I wanted to weep. Actually, I think I did a tiny bit when my instructor wasn’t looking.
While it was a pretty traumatizing experience for my tailbone and ego, I do think it was worthwhile. After all, I did get pretty good at standing up with skis on.
Moreover, however, that experience was a rather shocking revelation that learning, quite frankly, can be damn hard. It required every ounce of focus I had. I couldn’t just revert to auto-pilot; I had to work at it every second. The real challenge wasn’t about filling my head with information. The real challenge was keeping the information from falling out, needing it not just for a single occasion, but continuously in order to stay upright.
Although it kind of hurts to ride a bike right now, I’m glad I tried something new. I feel as if I learned something with my entire self, physically and viscerally. Every time I fell it was like being jolted awake, reminded of my position as a beginner and a student. I could feel the clumsiness of my steps, the sharp shooting fear every time I felt myself losing balance. There was nothing passive or simple about it.
I believe the same kind of active learning can be applied to regular schoolwork. Perhaps it’s a matter of changing the way we evaluate students’ proficiency at a topic. Maybe it’s up to the student to engage with the subject matter more. Maybe it’s placing emphasis on long-term retention instead of short-term cramming, or maybe it’s changing the attitude around learning from “if you don’t know this you’re going to fail” to “wouldn’t knowing this make life so much more interesting?”
Education should not be something we feel pressured to do perfectly. It shouldn’t be about separating the Cans from the Cannots, the “smart” kids from the “not-so-smart” ones. It shouldn’t be about a letter grade, a finals week or even a degree. It’s not something you accomplish; it’s something you do constantly because it’s what’s natural.
We never stop learning. So why not just make it something enjoyable?
Contact Serena Zhang at xiaosez ‘at’ stanford.edu.