Learning Like an Owl

So how do owls learn?

A biologist at Stanford University named Eric Knudsen has done a number of experiments on owls.  He successfully proved that owls use a combination of sound and vision to create a map of their world inside their brain; and that they can alter this map if their circumstances change.  Pretty ground breaking stuff in terms of bird neurobiology.  In the process he also told us something rather interesting about the nature of learning.

He deliberately distorted this map by 23 degrees for his experimental owls, and then watched to see how they coped.  “Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.” (*)

Owls, adult owls at least, learn in bite size chunks.

So how do Alexander students learn?  In bite size chunks.  Just like an owl.

Not instantaneously.  Not by the wave of a magic wand.  Not by the switching of a switch.  Not even by the best hands-on work the teacher has ever managed.

By setting a series of small, manageable goals to get to the enormous goal
By allowing themselves time and space to learn gradually
By taking a realistic view of the size of what they are learning
By allowing themselves to have failures and still keep going
By ditching their ideas about how they are too old to learn anything new
By accepting that something new and unfamiliar feels really strange for a while
By giving themselves a pat on the back (or possibly a mouse) each time they do well

I’ve been told that owls like a simple life.  Plenty of mice and plenty of sleep and they’re happy.  But they seem to have this learning business pretty well sorted.  And if it works for owls, it might just work for students.

Thanks to Jason Grey for the wonderful photo
(*) quote from Maria Popova, (@brainpicker)  reviewing a book on learning to play guitar by Gary Marcus.  You can find inspiration in such unlikely places.

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CNHC and ITM registered Alexander Technique teacher.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Alexander thinking, change, learning
9 comments on “Learning Like an Owl
  1. Love this, Karen! I think you have the learning process exactly right! And now I know I learn like an owl! Thanks!

    • Glad you like it, Imogen. As a society we put so much pressure on ourselves to learn in prescribed ways, often arbitrarily determined. If, as part of the AT, we can learn to learn in ways that are kinder, I’m all for it! Karen

  2. Geetha.d says:

    Hi karen,
    i liked this blog.
    Some times when a new experiment idea flashes in my mind based on alexander concepts,
    the whole body feels like floating in the heaven.
    Any how, i dont believe this feeling. I know this feeling stays one or more days.
    I really not able sense what is happenning in the body parts with that idea at that particular time.

    My mind becomes blank, and i have to wait for the next couple of days , waiting for a CHALLENGE or EXCEPTION From my body.
    Then my feeling changes , iam in the game again!!

    How you feel doing alexander technique?

    • Hi Geetha, I came across this lovely quote from the writer Anais Nin the other day, “You live out the confusions until they become clear.” I think that’s exactly what you are talking about. I find that if I make a really big change, I don’t have a clue what is going on, at least via my feeling sense, and it takes sometimes weeks or months (depending on the size of the change) until my reasoning and my feelings start talking to one another again. That is actually a really big step for a student, living calmly with the confusions, and not demanding a clear and immediate resolution. there’s another blog post brewing in there, once I can untangle all the different points. It sounds like you’re doing some fantastic experiments. Karen

  3. Geetha.d says:

    Hi karen,
    FM told some where ,
    i can teach and give experience of my technique to a good child, with in just a 5 minutes hands on guidance.

    This means he was confident of explaining the logic of his technique with in 5 minutes.

    If FM was confident of this, why cant alexander teachers?

    For good and intelligent OWL, a good teacher may explain with in 5 minutes? Who knows?
    May be this possible, but problem is identifying the intelligent OWLS and teachers combination, i think.

    • Hiya, maybe FM got the good children, and I’m getting the owls! Seriously, I would love to challenge him on that point. I find that explaining the logic doesn’t take long. Giving an experience – definitely 5 minutes is enough. Helping a student master the ideas in a practical, consistent way? Now you’re into the small chunks and gradual learning. I would love to know if, and how FM dealt with that. K

  4. Geetha.d says:

    Hi karen,
    thank you very much for your answers.
    I will read your answers many times to remember.

  5. geetha.d says:

    Hi karen,
    i have no answer for your question, like
    “””””I would love to know if, and how FM dealt with that?””””””
    since,
    1)FM given education to first generation teachers like marjory,barlow etc.
    2) these first generation teachers educated many students , let them take as second generation teachers.
    3) these second generation students are members of Alexander Society and they are educating the students , to become teachers.

    if alexander challenge of explaining his technique with in 5 minutes is true, then he might given the experience to some first alexander teachers.

    then the present generation of teachers have inherited his logic.

    then i think you have to give the answer? if not, then we have to believe in the middle generation of teaching process this teaching logic was missed some where.

    if not, we can think FM did not made any challenge of this type????

    • Hi Geetha,
      no, I don’t think we will ever have an answer to our questions about what and how FM did. Certainly the issue of whether you can pass teaching methods accurately through the generations – and whether or not you should – has been a hotly debated topic in the UK. I also think we should bear in mind that Alexander built up a business from scratch at least 3 times, so he must have been permanently on the look out for means of advertising, self-promotion, and how to catch people’s attention. Karen

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