How learning is like a one-legged zero-turn-radius lawnmower

I met my match this weekend -- a one-legged zero-turn-radius mower. Learning how it worked helped me remember how hard learning can be for my students. (Photo by Melanie Miller)

I met my match this weekend — a one-legged zero-turn-radius mower. Learning how it worked helped me remember how hard learning can be for my students. (Photo by Melanie Miller)

I’m always fascinated by learning something new. I love the challenge, but I might love analyzing the process of learning even more.

This weekend, I met my match — a one-legged, zero-turn-radius lawnmower. Let me explain.

On Saturday, after watching two of my three kids play soccer, my wife and I went to an estate auction. My sister- and brother-in-law were there, and since it was close to the soccer field, we decided to go say “hello” and check it out.

What was going to be a quick visit turned into a commitment of half our day. A few items caught our eyes, including a couple of mowers.

I was long overdue for a new one. My first mower was a rider that I inherited it when we bought our first house. It was my grandparents’ mower, and I learned to drive it as a young kid in their side yard.

Last summer, after about 30 years of life, that mower finally succumbed to rust and died, so I replaced it with a walk-behind push mower that cuts our yard in about two hours. It wasn’t ideal, but I wasn’t ready to make the plunge and purchase what I really needed.

At the estate auction, I spotted two used mowers that would do the job. I bid on the nicer of the two and bought it for a song (figuratively, of course … if I had to sing for this mower, I never would have gotten it!).

My learning process was about to begin, and I had no idea how bad I was going to be at first.

Loading the mower on a trailer to take home was an ordeal. My first attempt led to an inadvertent pirouette where I almost drove it off the side of the ramp (with quite a crowd of onlookers as they left the auction!).

Already I could tell that I had met my match. Driving one of these mowers — where you operate each of the large back wheels independently — just wasn’t intuitive to me. What I thought would work gave me the opposite results that I expected.

I was sure this was just like my students when I taught them Spanish OR when they learned chemistry OR when they read a complicated novel. I embraced the learning process. They had to go through it, so I wanted to, too.

Once I was home, I promptly mowed our yard. (Can you blame me? I had a new toy and wanted to play with it!) I weaved around trees and tried to stay close to the road without driving over the curb. It was slow and sloppy.

It was even harder when I realized the mower was a one-legged one. One of its figurative “legs” — the big driving tires — wouldn’t drive forward as fast as the other, and the mechanical arm that drove that “leg” would stick. That “broken leg” made my learning curve even steeper.

As I awkwardly covered the yard, I realized I was glad that no one was watching me. I wanted to figure out how this new machine worked, but I didn’t want to be micromanaged as I worked my way through all the mistakes.

It made me think back to the soccer game I watched earlier in the day. Parents would shout encouragement to their children, and some was more constructive than others (i.e. “aim your kicks” seemed a little unnecessary to me … that’s what every soccer player naturally does, but it’s not quite that easy!).

If someone had tried to “coach” me like that as I learned to mow, it would have been more frustrating than helpful. I just needed some space and time to figure it out. Then, it dawned on me … how often to my students need that, too, but I end up micromanaging them?

The lawn was cut in about 45 minutes, less than half the time it takes with my little push mower. And that included a broken belt, a trip to the hardware store two blocks away and fumbling to get it put back on! It was a huge success, even though it didn’t start that way.

Looking back on my experience as an awkward learner, here’s what it taught me or reminded me about what students go through:

  • Sometimes students just need space and time to figure out a new skill without anyone watching them or telling them what to do.
  • What was brand new to me was a polished skill for many other people. As a teacher, I often forget that I’m really good at what I teach, and what’s easy to me isn’t easy to my students.
  • When their new skills can produce something they can be proud of, it’s very rewarding. I was proud of my freshly-mowed lawn when I got done.
  • I needed lots of practice. The first signs of “getting it” didn’t mean it was time to move on to a new skill. I needed reinforcement, and the next time I cut the grass, I’ll need even more. Just because we think we’ve covered it in class doesn’t mean our students have fully acquired it.

Next time I’m teaching a new skill and am ready to micromanage or give some unrealistic advice like “aim your kicks,” I’ll think back to my one-legged zero-turn-radius mower and give my learners a little space.

[reminder]What have you learned about the learning process from learning something new? What was your experience, and how did it help you as an educator?[/reminder]

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