Rarely, if ever, do people describe a student's responsibility, other than to say they need to do their homework, pay attention, and study. What is attention and studying though? And what is homework? More important, is this all a student is responsible for? This week, in our ongoing series on education and learning, we're going to begin to take a look at some of these questions, starting with something I call, the "Teachability Index Worksheet."
"From Arrogance to Openness"
Recently a woman sent me a wonderfully animated and warm email. In it, she told me how she had stumbled onto the Emergence Site, and how excited she felt that much of what I wrote so matched her experiences. She titled her email, "excellent work!"
The following day, she wrote me again, this time to say she and her boyfriend had had a great conversation about the site. She then went on to say that she had told him how excited she felt about what she had been reading. His response? He told her he would check out the site, but then qualified his statement with, "even though there was nothing she said he hadn't heard before."
Got any idea where this woman's boyfriend would fall on the Teachability Index?
Ironically, this woman, who herself appears to be wonderfully open to new ideas, went on to rationalize her boyfriend's closed mindedness by saying, "he is, after all, a huge fan of learning and studying anything related to psychology."
A huge fan of learning and studying anything related to psychology! Damned if I can see it. Especially based on what he said. And while I consider myself to be a "huge fan of learning and studying anything related to psychology," her boyfriend seems more to be a huge fan of "psychological reductionism."
What's the difference?
Students of psychological reductionism are mostly interested in proving to others that they have heard it all already. Thus, they needn't waste their time exploring these other peoples' views.
How they can know this sight unseen is beyond me. But they claim they can. I know I can't. But maybe they actually can. Who knows.
Whatever the case, real students of psychology avidly digest the words of others even when much of what they read does sound familiar. (Does this sound at all like the woman herself?)
Why do they do this? Because real students of psychology want to understand more than just the other person's ideas. They also want to understand the other person as well. Why? Because "understanding people" IS how you "learn about psychology." And understanding psychological writers requires you see these folks as human beings and not just as talking heads.
My point? Being a real student of anything requires you expose yourself to the pain of possibly not understanding the other person. And trying anyway. In other words, being a student requires you study the teacher as well as the teacher's ideas. Only in this way can you truly know what a teacher is saying.
Of course, in order to do this, you must put yourself in pretty scary place. A place of personal honesty and open humility. Which is just the opposite of how it feels to hide behind a wall of arrogance like, "there's nothing there I don't already know."
Am I being too hard on this fellow? Moreover, am I, too, judging someone sight unseen?
The truth? In my heart, I worry that I am. If so, I sincerely apologize to him. Even so, while I can not judge him as a person, I can say something about his words. You see, his words imply that he can judge the good in my words sight unseen. Thus, when he says, "there's nothing here I haven't heard before," he is speaking the most commonly spoken mantra of closed minded people.
I'm surprised he didn't also speak the second most popular; "why reinvent the wheel?"
My anger aside, here then is what we will again be discussing this week; "what kills the love of learning." What kills it? Being the first of the two kinds of "unteachable." Arrogant. Which means what exactly? Let's take a look.
Accepting My Own Arrogance
Forgive the cliche, but let me ask you anyway. So is what I just did, "the pot calling the kettle black."
In a way, yes, it is. You see, I, myself have had my struggles with this very fault. In fact I openly admit to having been at times, among the most arrogant of students. Especially in light of the fact that I define "arrogant" as being "unteachable."
Am I still as arrogant as ever? Actually, at times, I still am. But have I improved at all over the years? Yes, very much so. In fact, as recently as last year, I made some pretty good gains in this area, in particular, in and around my feelings regarding the work of other personality theorists.
But even here, it's easy to see, I love talking about learning and teaching. Especially about personality theories, and including the writings of other personality theorists. So what am I referring to?
I wasn't always this open. In fact, only a year or so ago, I was very closed to the writings of other theorists. So much so, it shocked me to find exactly how closed I was.
At the time, I had decided it would be a good idea if I studied the ideas of other personality theorists. After all, how could I claim to be a personality theorist if I only knew my own ideas. So I bought a boatload of books by other theorists.
When I began to read them though, I found I hated it. So I would time and again use criticism as a way to justify quitting.
Not exactly too open to new learning, eh?
Ironically, I was doing the very thing good students need to do. At least, the first thing they need to do, anyway. What was I doing? I was comparing what I knew to what others believe.
This then is the first responsibility of a student; to comparatively explore the ideas of others. In other words, to truly be a student of anything, you must explore both your own ideas about this thing, as well as the ideas of others. You must then compare the two.
In effect, what I'm saying is that in order to learn, you must connect to other students, even if the two of you disagree. In fact, when there is no disagreement, you cannot learn. Why not? Because "learning" is "being able to consciously see differences." More on this as we go on.
So okay. I was on the right track by wanting to study the work of others. However, it hurt like hell and I wasn't learning anything. Not surprising, considering I had an attitude that would all but choke the life out of a teacher.
What was I doing? Mostly, all I looked for was whether these theorists agreed with me. Or disagreed with what I believed to be true. Then, if they agreed with "the great me," I wrote words in the book margins which praised the theorist. And if they disagreed with "the great me," then I wrote critical angry words in the margins, words which I would prefer not to repeat here. Why not? Because I'm too embarrassed to admit how horribly judgmental I was being. And angry. And profane.
Most of all, I am too embarrassed to admit how arrogant I was being. And how totally wrong I was. Ugh. What a jerk! To my credit though, at some point I realized how badly I was acting. At which point, I began to take a closer look at the ideas which were provoking these reactions in me.
How could I feel which ideas these were? To be honest, they were easy to spot. I found that I had written nasty words next to all of them, things like "idiot," and "assh*le," and "bullsh*t." And worse.
So okay. This was after all my copy of the book I was destroying. Just the same, I felt embarrassed by how badly I was acting.
Eventually then, when I began to take responsibility for my actions, these words became my greatest teachers. How? They marked the very points at which I had the most to learn. Talk about arrogance! My appraisals for truth had entirely been rooted in whether the author agreed with me or not. And if they didn't, I blamed them for what I felt!
What put me on the right track then? Just this. I used my own work on conscious reading to realize that if I couldn't picture the author's words, that I had not actually read them. Even if I could repeat these words perfectly. No coincidence, my profanities had all been written next to the very ideas I had the hardest time picturing.
What was it like after I realized this? Mostly, I began to be able to read these words for the first time. More important, I began to see how many of these folks had spent their entire lives researching and supporting their view points. Just as I have.
More significant still, if you were to look at what I began to write in the margins, you'd see things like, "great idea!," and "very good definition!," and "powerful idea. I must explore this further!"
Can you tell where I would fall on the Teachability Index now?
Amazing what lives on the other side of arrogance, isn't it?
Now here's the irony. Most people who know me, know me to be a very open man. So what was happening to me there? Simply this. My worst arrogance seems to have been entirely directed at other theorists. Why? Because I once had a teacher ridicule me for having my own ideas. More than once, in fact. Has this even happened to you?
With normal folks then, I could still feel open to hearing about them and their ideas. Including about our differences. Why? Because they never tripped the "critical teacher" injury in me.
So what about my openness to normal people? Where did it come from? And how could I have been both so open to learning about normal people and so closed to learning about theorists?
Herein lies the key to understanding what I see as the heart of "the students responsibility." See if you can see where I'm coming from, by comparing what I've just told you with this next story.
Listening to My Grandfather
Many people in childhood have relationships with their grandparents. I never did. In fact, I can count on one hand the times I even was in their presence.
I do remember one time though and not surprisingly, it ended up changing my whole life. It also seems to have been one of the things which led me to become a personality theorist. At the time, I was twelve, and it was a fall afternoon. My mother's father was visiting us, and this was one of the few times he visited us in my entire childhood.
Like most life changing events, I don't remember much before the important few moments. Only that we had just finished eating dinner. My mother at the time was busy cleaning the kitchen, and my grandfather had gone to sit behind the house.
I, at this point, foolishly walked into the kitchen and was instantly sorry I did. Why? Because my mother blurted out one of her usual barking-dog orders. She told me to, "go out and sit with your grandfather."
Go out and sit with grandpa? I didn't even know the man. We had never even spoken a single word. Moreover, I was so painfully shy that I felt terrified to go out there. But when I tried to beg off, she gave me the deadly stare. After which, I hurriedly went.
I can still vividly picture the cold green metal chairs, facing away from the house. I can also picture my grandfather's oversized, old and worn hands. And his equally old and worn gray and red flannel shirt.
Even more vivid to me is how nervous I felt. And wordlessly cold. And small and afraid. But when he turned to me and said my name, suddenly this all went away. I, in fact, can still hear his voice saying in a kind grandfatherly voice, "Steven, ... ."
Then he started, for the first time, to tell me about his life.
Can you imagine having all four of your grandparents alive, and yet having only one memory of hearing any of them saying your name? If so, then you can understand how important this sound felt to me. And how important it still feels.
Even more important was how I felt about hearing about his life. You see, the minute he began to tell me, my painful shyness evaporated into wonder. And the more he told me, the more I sunk into the awe filled state from which all children listen to story tellers.
How can I communicate to you now how I felt that day? I felt a hunger for his words. And for the connection between us. I had never felt anything like this. I felt hungry to understand him as a person. And I felt fascinated by how much I loved hearing about his life.
Most of all, though, I felt delighted by how my newly discovered ability to understand another person made the other person feel. He smiled so many times. And I smiled so many times too.
Can you imagine this? Can you imagine being twelve years old and never having personally connected to another human being? My father was always gone and working. And my mother was a close to always catatonic schizophrenic who reacted violently to any kind of sound, including to voices.
This is, in fact, what made this moment so important. You see, I lived in a house where no one could talk. And here was someone talking. Sadly, no sooner had I realized this, then my cold angry mother appeared and shouted at him, "Shut up, pop!" Which he did. And in the next instant, my hunger to know the lives of other human beings grew to enormous proportions.
It probably still is the largest feeling I have inside of me. And by now, I have heard a heck of a lot of stories. Sadly, I never heard or spoke to my grandfather ever again, so I never heard anymore of his stories. I never even saw him again. And some times, when I sit with people and listen to their life stories, I am so reminded of what I felt that day.
I am still so curious as to what he might have taught me.
A Student of People
So what does this story have to do with being a student? Simply this. This one event defined my whole attitude as a student. And still does. You see, I literally am a student of everyone I talk to. I literally study peoples' lives. And people themselves. Unfortunately, it has taken me almost sixty years to see how this applies not only to peoples' spoken words, but also to their written words.
As for what I am suggesting is a student's responsibility, as I've said, it is to comparatively explore the ideas of others. This is the first and primary responsibility of all students. What does this mean exactly though?
It means that in order to learn, a student must first learn who the teacher is as a person. Only then, can they learn about the teacher's ideas.
For example, one of the personality theorists whose ideas I was most closed to was Sigmund Freud. Sight unseen, I had dismissed him and his ideas as being nothing I needed to pursue. Not coincidentally, he was also the first theorist I learned to see past our differences, and to see the good in his work.
No surprise, this occurred in the instant in which I first saw him as a human being. What did I see? I saw a picture of him walking with his daughter, Anna, he as her teacher, and she as his student. What a wonderfully warm and loving picture. She's holding his arm, and he looks so proud.
Seeing this picture, I was so taken with how I had wrongly judged him as cold. And how this picture looked nothing like what I had expected.
Looking back, I am also amazed at how similar this picture looks to what I felt that day with my grandfather.
So now, let me ask you. How open are you to the ideas of others?
How open have you been to my ideas today?
And are you at all curious as to the diagram I've placed at the beginning of this column today, the one titled, the "Teachability Index Worksheet"?
Obviously, it's a worksheet. Here's how it works.
First, you begin a class by having your students evaluate their state of learning. You do this by first handing them each a worksheet and asking them to read the words printed across the line. Then you ask them self examine, looking for their present state of openness. Ask them to then mark the top line at the place next to the word which most feels like their present state.
Then you teach them something.
Midway through your class, you then ask them to do this again. Ask them to self examine, then mark the spot. No discussion. No explanation.
Then you teach them some more.
Finally, just before you are done teaching, ask your students to again place a mark at the point which best matches their state of openness to learning. No discussion. Just ask them to do this. Then give them a few moments to allow this bake.
So what should you see? Well, if you'd really like to find out, instead you asking me to tell you, try first to be a real student. Try seeing for yourself.
To do this, all you need do is to download the worksheet pdf file at the end of this column, then fill it in as you try to learn something.
Know you need not be in the presence of an actual, flesh and blood teacher. Rather, you can simply pick something you are interested in and then try to learn from what you read. Then make your first mark. Then read. Then make your second mark. Then read some more. Then you make your final mark.
Now give yourself a few moments. Then notice where you made these marks.
Were they in the same place all three times? Did they change at all?
Were you surprised by any of what you saw or felt? Or were you right where you expected yourself to be?
What's the point?
If you weren't surprised by anything you saw, then you didn't learn anything. And if you didn't learn anything, then you've missed the entire point of this column. You see, even if what you learned was that you really do know yourself, this experience is supposed to feel good to you. And delight you. And surprise you. And feel fresh each time.
What about if you've had many of these experiences in your life though?
Well, I for one have had a bunch of them myself. Probably a whole heck of a lot more than most folks you'll ever meet. Even so, I still love seeing how these experiences turn out, each and every time they happen. Why? Because I still love learning about people. Including about myself.
Is it any wonder I became a personality theorist?
Okay. So I didn't completely define a "student's responsibility." Not even anywhere near it. To be honest though, I knew as I began that I wouldn't.
What is nice is, knowing this didn't ruin the fun I was having. Nor did it feel as bad as it might have once felt to me. In fact, it didn't feel bad at all. Pretty good, actually. I also feel curious as to what I may learn next.
How about you? Did you at all feel curious as to what you might learn? Or did you, like the woman's boyfriend, feel that what you heard me say you've already heard before?
If so, then I invite you to keep trying. Learning is such an amazing feeling. And you deserve to feel this feeling. Regularly and frequently.
All you need to keep feeling it is to see what I've been saying about the student's responsibility. You see, the most important responsibility any student has is to keep seeking delight. And if you don't feel delighted, you haven't been open to learning.
As for me, I can say I finally am. And because I am, I am having one heck of an amazing life.
Wouldn't you like to be having one too?
Until next week then. I hope you're all well,
P. S. And for those wishing to see what they may learn, here's a link to the worksheet. Teachability Index Worksheet
P. P. S. As for those interested in what the second kind of "unteachable" state is, you'll have to return next week. Until then.