When I was a toddler – I don’t think I had started Kindergarten yet – I taught myself to count by twos. I didn’t actually know that was what I was doing, or even that it was a valuable skill. I was just playing a game I made up, counting playing cards while dropping them on one side or another of a picture frame on my grandmother’s living room table. When a card dropped on the far side of the frame, I would say its number out loud: (one), TWO, (three), FOUR, etc. I didn’t attach any significance to my game until sometime later, when I was in the car with my mother and one of her teacher friends and the friend said something about when (at some later point in my schooling) I would learn to count by twos. I declared, “I already know how to count by twos” and proceeded to demonstrate.
Is that an obnoxious story? Forgive me if it is, but this week’s assignment is to write about “learning by experience” and that’s my earliest memory of doing so. My mathematical prowess did not survive into adulthood; I grew up be neither an astrophysicist nor (to my abiding regret) a champion poker player. But to this day, if you need to count something by twos, I’m your gal.
Looking back, I see that “doing” has always been my favorite mode of learning. Sometimes this has happy results (the card game) and sometimes not (my first experience of riding a bike with hand brakes left me with a broken tooth in the front of my mouth until a dentist friend repaired it decades later), but I’d still much rather (as Nike says) “just do it” than spend hours reading about it first. This correlates moderately well with my learning styles profile: My card game was “solitary” (the adult Elaine scored 13 out of 20 on that mode), and “aural” (14), but I’d have to say it was also “physical” – which was one of my lower scores (8). Perhaps toddlers learn by physical means because they are less developed verbally?
Of course, learning-by-doing has its limitations. It’s fine to dive in and write a speech when you’ve never really written one before; less fine to dive in and perform brain surgery under the same conditions. (Fortunately, I’m not a doctor – though I have written speeches for them.) As a speechwriter who learns by experience, I read a great deal – and not just business books. And I analyze well-written speeches, see what makes them work for me – and where I think they fall short.
In the movie Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray character relives the same day over and over again, until he learns the things he needs to do to grow as a person. People who learn by experience have to be careful to take in a range of experiences and inputs, or we risk rehashing what we know over and over again. This might work well for someone in a factory, who repeats the same action every day; but knowledge workers must recognize that the world’s store of knowledge increases daily, and unless our personal stores of knowledge follow suit we will render ourselves obsolete.