Tuesday, October 15, 2013

[Learning] Danger! Curves ahead!

I remember my thinking clearly. I had gotten it into my head that I was meant to be a motorcyclist. My dad had instilled the appropriate amount of fear of what he called “hundreds of pounds of hurtling steel” and I knew the safety class had to come first.  This shows growth on my part since I typically dive in feet first and learn things the hard way.  

I signed up for a one-day introductory class with a class the following week if it went well.  I was nervous, but ready. I had, in my mind, a vision of riding along the beach like Tom Cruise did in Top Gun.  I conveniently ignored the learning curve I was about to climb. I also conveniently ignored what I know about myself as a learner. I need time to observe, time to calculate, time to choose my path.  Learning difficult things in a public and structured way is difficult for me. I knew this, but I ignored it.

We were  a small class—eight people or so.  Most of them had been on some sort of two-wheeled vehicle before.  I… had not.  At least not since I fell asleep on the back of my father’s moving  motorcycle nearly 30 years earlier (don’t worry, he caught me.  Then he banned me from the back of his bike for EVER).  I started to wonder if I had made a good decision.  I was there though. The learning curve had begun.
We read some pamphlets, talked about how dangerous motorcycles were, how they worked, how to have eyes in the backs of our heads .  Then we were allowed to sit on our loaner bikes.  We couldn’t start them yet, but we could sit on them.  I’ll admit, the learning curve was going a little slow for me at this point—my mind was starting to wander. My Tom-Cruise vision was taunting me.  After some practice getting on and off the bikes, we finally got to start them! Vrooom!  I was back on track and engaged immediately. Top Gun, here I come!

That first day we managed to get our bikes started, ride around in 15 mph circles, and do some zigzags. I determined that I was making progress since I wasn’t the very worst learner in the group. By my count, I was in the bottom third, but at least not at the bottom.  I was tense, and felt like I needed more time, but I left that day feeling like a learner!

Two weeks later I went back for my second class. I immediately realized my previous learning had not stuck.  I felt brand new again. I was rusty, to put it kindly.  As we started back into our 15mph circles, I couldn’t get the hang of it.  I was nervous and unsure—making me squeeze the handles too tightly , rev the engine, and squeeze the brakes when I shouldn’t have been.  I was being corrected each time around the circle, and I felt my stress level rise.  My face was hot, my spine tingled, and my heart was beating more loudly than it should have been.  I used my same method of self-measurement as before—was I the worst in the group? Um… yes.  Most decidedly yes.  I just couldn’t get it. I felt my conviction and energy drain and I started marking time until the class was over. I was getting angry—irritated at what seemed like the constant corrections. My learning curve had gone flat and I wasn’t handling it well.

Once class ended it took me over a year to regroup and get back on track with my goal. I ended up deciding to learn in my usual way—feet first.  I saved up and bought a 150cc scooter.  I took it to a parking lot and rode that thing around until I had the feel for it.  Then I rode it every day on the back streets of my neighborhood, then the larger streets, then out into the big bad world.  My learning curve was steep, but on my terms.  I still had the sweaty palms, the tingly spine, and the frustrations, but I was able to work them out on that parking lot and on those streets at my own pace.

I always remember that tingly-spine feeling when I am teaching.  Challenging learning takes an extra dose of focus, of courage, and of perseverance.  While we all agree that we need to push our student to learn in new and challenging ways, it is also true that we need to respect and their learning process.  We can support and guide them in the process of learning while still ensuring that the learning itself is real and rigorous.

This winter, I’m taking that motorcycle safety class again.  I’ve done the prep work, the pre-learning, and I feel ready to learn at their pace. I still have my Top-Gun dreams to achieve!


  1. Great post! I hope you get to have your dreamed of Top Gun experience. I think I will live vicariously!!!

  2. I always appreciate when teachers let me learn in my own ways, question and come up with solutions.