When we take up a new hobby or study a new subject we usually have great excitement and joy. However, not long after we feel our energy depleting and our learning anxiety kicking in. We start wondering, “What if this is not for me?“. The problem usually lies in the learning approach rather than the subject itself.
When we feel bored, disengaged, or even fearful it is because of the passive and mechanistic learning approach that is dominating almost every field of education from schools and universities to professional training. Most people haven’t yet discovered the power of joyful learning. For most of my life I hadn’t either until a new dance instructor stepped into my Cuban Salsa class.
Cuban Salsa – A Joyful Learning experience
When I started practicing Cuban Salsa I was a complete beginner. I joined a salsa school full of excitement, energy and curiosity. A few months went by before I started realising that I was not making any real progress. I felt stuck in the basics.
A month later my wife and I did a trip to Cuba. While in Vinales we met a very friendly local guide. When we told him about our passion for Salsa he paused talking, looked at us and said “Just follow what I am doing”. Within a minute we were dancing. I was blown away. In only a few minutes I understood more than I did during months of “robotic” instruction and practice in London.
When I returned back to London I decided to try another school, hoping that the teaching approach will be better. Indeed, the new teachers were far more experienced and it felt like I was learning again but then a few months later I again hit a plateau. Although the teachers were fun I felt unable to learn anything new anymore. Every class felt the same, it would start with a big routine that we had to learn within 3 hours and then robotically execute it at the end of the class. I lost my confidence and eventually decided to give up.
With that in mind I went to one last workshop.
But then something unexpected happened.
A transformative approach to learning
When I entered the dance hall I saw that there was a new instructor from Cuba, who had just arrived to the UK. His name was Julio. This was his first class as an instructor in London, and seemed to be full of energy and passion. Even though he didn’t teach us on that day, he just couldn’t stop dancing, even on his own. There was something really authentic and pure about him. His dancing was on a completely different level compared to all the other teachers we’ve ever had, yet he was the most casual and informal teacher you could imagine. It was a joyful learning experience.
From the next class onwards he became our de-facto teacher. He was fun, kind, intuitive and really passionate for teaching his craft. He was exactly what we needed to advance our learning. Although his English was not good, he was teaching us without using too many words or trying to be logical. Instead, I was more focused on observing him and actively listening to the music, rather than overanalysing things.
Julio was not focused on teaching us the names of the moves, in fact, he didn’t even know or remember the names. It was all learning by using all of our senses, emotions and body. He would teach us how to listen to the music, pause, accelerate, slow down, shake our upper body and be electrified by the music. Every class was an energising experience. I would usually leave the class with more energy than before.
Joyful learning through active participation and interaction
There were no more robotic movements or long choreographies that no-one could remember. Our teacher would deconstruct the most complex moves in simple micro-patterns and we would try to do them one at a time with our partners. Then we would rotate and try again with our next partners and then rotate again and again.
Something exciting would happen during this process. Those who grasped the moves better than their partners they would temporarily turn into their teachers. When moving to the next partner the roles would reverse based on which if the two partners has better understanding. So during class everyone would become both a student and a teacher.
This was a process of trial and error with everyone doing mistakes all of the time. But no-one was giving up, instead people would become more excited and try again and again until they’ve learned the moves. At the end of each class we were all in a position to use these patterns and combine them in beautiful routines.
Instructional variety or making it up as you go
Our instructor, Julio, was actively creating connections between the students making sure everyone learns from everyone else while experimenting new patterns and connecting them with ones that we already knew. It didn’t matter if you couldn’t do a move, he would smile and show you again and again at various speeds. Unlike other teachers that try to be strict or teach you the right way, he was more focused on making it a fun experience and put you at ease.
The more comfortable he made us feel, the more open, receptive and creative I felt, absorbing everything like a sponge. Perhaps, this was his secret, to create a collaborative, safe and fun space of exploration, free of judgements, where everyone was free to discover the moves and make them their own at their own pace in a truly liberating experience.
Learning anxiety and eroding goals
Most of us start every New Year with a list of goals we want to achieve. Perhaps we want to lose some weight, exercise more or even start a blog like me. But as the weeks go by our initial excitement wanes. Perhaps we overestimated our ability to go every day to the gym or perhaps there is not enough ideas for our blog or the training/class we joined is boring. Within a month or two our learning anxiety goes up while our goals start drifting further and further away.
A negative self-reinforcing learning loop
From a systems thinking perspective this can be described by the “drifting goals” archetype. As beginners we always face a gap between our desired learning goals and what we actually learn. We invest a lot of time, effort and focus to narrow the gap but we struggle as we don’t see much improvement fast and doubts start kicking in. As a result, we lower our goals and expectations, which makes us try even less. As we fail to achieve our new goals we reduce them some more until we give up.
What influences our perception of improvement is the delay between practicing and seeing actual results. Sometimes, this delay can be big and it highly depends on the learning environment, and approach used.
To avoid falling into this negative self-reinforcing loop we need to consider two things.
First, learning is meant to be uncomfortable or else we are not really breaking through our current knowledge barriers. So it is ok to have some level of learning anxiety.
Second, learning includes practicing, making mistakes and continuously learning from them. It is an ongoing creative process that develops constant tension between what we know and where we want to get.
Unfortunately for decades the concept of learning that has dominated all levels of education is that of passive instruction where a teacher is depositing knowledge to the student the same way that someone is depositing money into a bank account. This mechanistic process that treats human as robots rather than creative individuals has been described by Paulo Freire as the ‘banking concept’ of education. You can read more about it in “the art of unlearning – how to not get stuck in the same routines”.
Neuroscience has now proven that we have been doing wrong all along!
Let’s turn everything into a brain-friendly, joyful learning experience
Deborah Meier, an American educator who has written and campaigned for decades about better schools, learning and teaching experience says that people learn through their whole bodies and minds, not just through the rational part of their brain. This is unlike the banking concept of education, where it assumes that people only learn by consuming and storing information through passive instruction.
In reality we actually learn by using our whole selfs, intuition, emotions, verbal, and non-verbal communication. In my article “Communication and Trust or How to Dance with Strangers” I explain for instance how non-verbal communication conveys much more information than verbal and how it helps build quickly trust without even exchanging a word with others. Moreover, engaging with people’s emotions leads to a more stimulating, creative, and joyful learning experience.
When my dance teacher Julio stepped into my class his teaching style took me by surprise and it changed my perspective forever. He had a positive, engaging and creative style of learning, that no-one had experienced before. But for me it worked miracles, I felt more liberated than I have ever been in my life. For a year, I barely missed a class, and my confidence was through the roof. Every day I was feeling a great sense of accomplishment and within a matter of months, I was on a whole different level. I never expected to get the best learning experience of my life in a dance class.
When you feel learning anxiety in the future, perhaps it is not about you. Perhaps, you just happened to step into the wrong classroom.