On Learning--2006 Reflections
Bill Long 5/30/06
The Virtue of Having Two Teachers
About 18 months ago I wrote an essay entitled "On Learning," in which I was fairly skeptical about peoples' interest in study and mastery. One of my conclusions was "people learn reluctantly and almost always because of some bottom line that is directly before them." Today I want to rid myself of this skepticism and return to the notion of learning but from a different perspective. I am not so concerned here with personal motivation for learning as I am about how best to learn. That is, how do you make what you are learning "stick?" The thesis of this essay, briefly stated, is that you learn best if you have two teachers, who probably don't know about each other, teaching you the same thing. Rather than being redundant or inefficient or too expensive, it actually serves to make the material "stick" to you much more readily than if you only had one teacher.
Beginning with a Clarification
Let me start with the admission that you don't need or may not want a teacher for every new thing you learn. Sometimes it suffices to learn by trial and error or by reading the directions on the package. I know that I have no interest in attending a cooking class, even though I am currently learning how to cook. For some reason I want to figure this out "on my own"--in addition to posing questions to the secretaries at work!
You may decide the same thing. Perhaps you love to garden or watch birds, but don't want to take a class on the subject. This is perfectly consistent with what I will now say.
When You Decide to Hire a Teacher...Get Two
My preference is to have tutors who are deeply schooled in the subject I want to learn. I prefer individualized or small group instruction because I am pretty sure I know what I want to learn, and my direct access to the teacher enables me to do this much more rapidly and efficiently. For years I thought it sufficient to have only one teacher because I thought that as long as you get an "expert," you will learn the material. Oh, I know that every teacher isn't "right" for a person, but I figured if I didn't find the right one, I would just keep searching until I found the right one. Sort of a like a quest for love, I suppose. But learning how to tango and speak/read Italian has taught me differently. In each of these I have had two teachers--either because I had a substitute when one was away or because I managed to find two teachers who did the same thing and decided to hire both of them. Here are four advantages of having two teachers.
1. Teachers have Different Attitudes about Pointing out My Mistakes. If you are learning something, you make lots of mistakes. I am not comfortable in my life unless I make tons of mistakes each day. I think that people whose goal it is to remove mistakes from their lives are not trying very hard in life. You make mistakes because you are reaching for more than you currently grasp. But teachers have vastly different approaches to mistakes that students make. Some make a student stop and repeat him/herself. Others just "let it slide" and figure that the important thing is to capture the "big idea" and that the best thing in learning a language or subject is to let you speak, knowing that eventually you will make fewer and fewer mistakes. I want two teachers because one of them will be more stringent with me than the other, and I want that sometimes. But other times I want a more lenient approach.
2. Having Two Teachers is better because They Emphasize Different Things. My tango teacher Peter believes that the best thing you can do is to learn a series of "steps" or "moves" and that, when you have done enough of that, you can gradually put them together and learn to tango. Each "step" is sort of like a brick with which you can build a "house." You need quite a supply of them in order to put them together in a beautiful way. Carlos, on the other hand, believes that the most important thing to learn in tango is how to walk. Walking is everything, for Carlos. Therefore, when he is the teacher we will spend the first 30 minutes (of 90) just walking around the room--arm in arm; male forward and female backwards; to the side, etc. Walking is the most important and most difficult thing in dancing, he believes. Therefore, learn how to walk.
Or, in my Italian lessons, Ida likes to speak a lot and introduce loads of big words to me, forcing me to understand concepts and learn to describe emotions and opinions. On the other hand, Cristina is much more practical, and takes much time working on basic things like how to order food at a restaurant, the difference between a "bar," "trattoria," and "restaurant," and mastering basic conversational phrases. Cristina stops me when I say the word "so," which is a word I use too often in English, and tells me, "Bill, if you use 'so' in Italian, they will think you know something" (i.e., "so" means "I know"). Ida is a native speaker and Cristina is an American. The combination of both teachers gives me both an acquaintance with the practicalities of the language as well as the verbal sweep of it.
3. Having Two Teachers means You Can Ask the OTHER Teacher about things Which Confused You About the First Teacher. You will be confused by learning something new. Goes without saying. Often you will ask questions of your teacher and really not be satisfied with the answer. Rather than continuing to press the issue with teacher # 1, I have learned to pose the same question to teacher # 2, and about 99% of the time I get my question answered in a very precise way. For weeks I wasn't sure of the difference between "la tavola" (table) and "il tavolo" (table) in Italian. One of my teachers clarified it for me so that I will never forget it ("la tavola" is bigger).
4. Having Two Teachers Gives You Two Different Personalities With Which To Deal. When you learn a subject, you don't just learn the subject, unless you are going through the University of Phoenix. You learn it through someone. I have said to my students for years that they are not learning "Sales Law" or "Jurisprudence," but "Jurisprudence through Long." This statement often disconcerts inexperienced students because they want to get "the real thing" and not just "your opinion," though they would never put it like that. But it takes a mature person to realize that what you really are learning is the subject through a person. And, having two teachers not only emphasizes this point but brings home to me each week the reality that if I really learn the subject it will be because I have developed my own approach to the subject--probably a combination of the approach of both teachers. The goal of learning, actually, is to develop you own approach to the material. And you do it best by having two approaches before you each week.
You may not think that you even need one teacher to learn what you want to know. But you will never really be a friend of learning until you realize that you need two teachers in order to learn. Two language teachers. Two piano teachers. Two dance instructors. Two doctoral advisors. Don't seek to be shaped by one person; one person is too limited. As Moe said to Curly, "Pick Two." (Curley's response, at times, was "Nyuk, Nyuk." Cristina taught me that this was the proper pronunciation of the Italian "gn." How can I ever forget it?)
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long