During my time in college I had the great opportunity to tutor students in Logic, a class that I had previously taken and performed pretty well at. I enjoyed the study and enjoyed helping others to understand it and by doing so learned many lessons about not only logic but also the nature of learning itself.
One of the best lessons came to me not when I was in class and not when I was tutoring. Surprisingly, it came during my Discus practice.
Hoping for a Glimmer
A long delay between mowing times had given our track team a grassy field of which to practice our discus. It wasn’t really a big deal until I couldn’t find one. It had bounced, rolled and flopped around and therefore wasn’t quite easy to find.
It was also a sunny day and thus I decided to try a different tactic: Just keep walking around until the metal of the discus edge glimmered and gave away its position. Sure enough, after walking around the field my moment came and the discus was found.
This hope for a glimmer draws many parallels to how we come to learn new things.
The reason this particular discus event stood out to me so much was because I had spent some time earlier in the day tutoring some Chinese exchange students in Logic. Now, typically logic is something that you would think would just “make sense” but it can be difficult to pick up on the ideas behind it, even for a student who speaks fluent English. However, it was proving to be even more difficult for these Chinese students who, even though they could speak English very well, were having trouble with the lexicon.
I was forced to change my normal way of explaining things. And then again. And then again.
I had to show them around the grassy field, so to speak, until their eye caught the glimmer. I had to try many different methods until I could see that look on their face that they finally got it.
You see, when you learn new things, you learn it in accordance to what you already know. Your perspective, background knowledge, and history all play a part in how you will come to learn the new information. Sure, a tutor or teacher can tell you straight up what you need to know, but it doesn’t work for you until it means something, and meaning is gained through the connectivity of what you’ve learned in the past.
Wrapping Your Head Around or Walking Around a New Idea
The best way to learn something new, especially if you are having trouble, is by taking a walk around the topic. Think of a puzzle where you are trying to find a place for a particular piece. The more of the puzzle you have solved the more likely you are to be able to see where your trouble piece fits in.
If you read a book on the biology of energy in a human and don’t quite get it yet, it may be a good idea to try a different book on the same topic. The different language, perspective, or analogies used will allow you to walk around the topic a bit more until you see the glimmer.
In short, the best way to learn something new is to keep learning. If you want to understand Plato’s ideas better take some time to learn more about his other ideas.
The more you understand the picture you are trying to see the more you are able to see how each idea within it fits in.
Sometimes you need a good guide around the grassy field. A good tutor, teacher, coach, or parent; anyone who can help you spot the glimmer.
The landscape of your mind is as individual as you are. The point at which the glimmer flickers in our mind may be completely different than another. Just pointing at it doesn’t work, except with the easiest of topics.
This is also why creativity and patience are traits any great and successful teacher must have. Walking around an idea with a student takes time and energy.
But you can’t always rely on another. You must be active in your learning. Passivity doesn’t result in a glimmer; you have to be the one walking around.
So next time you are having trouble grasping an idea, take a walk, maybe literally and figuratively, and look at it from a different angle. The glimmer may just be around the corner.