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.