First published in Dutch on the 24th of October 2010
“I hope I can keep it up.”
A student made the remark above to me only recently at the close of our sessions. His remark holds much hesitation about his ability to remain motivated, focused and interested. A little weary, I responded with words of unsurprising wisdom; “At the end of the day, you simply have to get on with it.”
I was overcome with disappointment. The student was partly to blame for that. His remark made clear to me that he still had not grasped the meaning of my counsel. Yet, I was also disappointed with myself because I was ready to send him away with this awful one-liner. The words have the ring of a self-evident truth; however, they are at odds with my own central message:
Learning is not something we do; it is something we are.
Learning is everything
The wording may seem a little dramatic, but that is not my intention. I believe every word of it. I have more often pointed out that we are creatures of a journey of perpetual learning. We constantly invoke memory-constructs in order to interpret circumstances and if needed we adapt those constructs as new relevant information is presented to us. That is how we learn.
We have created memory-constructs for and about EVERYTHING we encounter in our lives. They hold facts, convictions, actions and feelings (also view my essay What Is Comprehension?). They determine how we perceive the world around us, as well as how we operate in it. In my book I compare learning with breathing; learning happens all the time without us noticing or without us being able to work around it.
If we cannot omit the act of learning, it follows that we cannot get away from the inclinations that are needed for learning; such as, attention, interest, and concentration. These inclinations need not be experienced consciously. We have all had moments when, for instance, we are in a crowded pub buzzing with loud conversations. Suddenly we can hear our own name rising from the noise. In reality, that particular sound is not any louder than all of the other sounds in the room. It only seems that way because we are focused on our own names unconsciously (subliminal hearing). In the same way, there are examples of subliminal learning. Specific visual and auditory stimuli enter our system on a wavelength we do not experience consciously. Research has shown that we still pick up on those stimuli, which means we do have unconscious attention, interest and concentration for them. After all, we ignore a multitude of other stimuli.
In sum, under normal circumstances one cannot achieve a complete sense of being unmotivated, uninterested and unfocused; any more than it is possible to stop breathing. It is possible to be unmotivated to get a specific chore done, but that only means that one’s motivation is focused on something else (e.g. lying around on the sofa). Similarly, one can have little interest in something specific; it means that they are interested in something else instead (e.g. eating crisps and watching television). The same rule applies to one’s concentration.
My earlier advice to “just get on with it and do it” suggests that behaviour can entirely be disconnected from one’s state of mind. Naturally, this is an attractive idea to any reluctant student (might I add, so too to every teacher, coach, and parent!), but I believe that the idea is quite impossible. Moreover, I believe it will only bring us zombie-like behaviour. I doubt anyone would be able to keep this up for very long. More importantly, the student will not learn anything while in this state. A zombie does not experience anything and therefore it will not build memory constructs. And thus my advice only undermines my primary objective: stimulating the student to learn.
The student who is “hoping he can keep it up” is mistaken as well. He is no slave to a state of mind that functions independently and erratically. His emotions and his behaviour do not exist separately from each other or from himself. He has still made a conscious decision to take the classes he attends.
Students often complain about being unmotivated. However, whenever I advise them to quit, they always respond arguing that they do not want to quit because they enjoy their classes so much and want to learn more about the subject. This implies that they are motivated after all, but they got confused by a setback or a faulty assessment.
It can be said that these students attempt to employ memory-constructs that do not actually work. They don’t know why this is or what they can do about it. This is why they are unable to make effective adjustments, hence the confusion. Whenever this becomes persistent it’s possible that their thoughts, their behaviour and feelings are no longer experienced as a coherent whole which they control. In their response they often “pretend” to be zombie-like, but they soon discover this does not help them at all. Instead, they experience erratic emotions which seem to have taken on a life of their own and at some point the students have no more faith in their own ability to assess their competence properly (Can I do this? Do I even want to?).
Sand in the machine
Someone who keeps on wondering whether or not they can remain motivated or comprehend something or enjoy something, ultimately puts sand in the otherwise well-oiled machine of learning. Such doubts usually do not disappear by putting a hold on the process; supposedly taking some distance from the situation and analysing it. The conclusions of this exercise are hardly ever “yes, I want it!” or “yes, I can do it!”. On the contrary, the doubt increases exactly because you are not moving. In the corridors of one’s own mind a mere whisper of doubt can grow into a proper scream; not because you are naturally insecure, but rather because you can make yourself feel insecure by halting the learning process!
Responsibility and trust
You must keep the learning process in motion by acting and experiencing without stopping. This should not be considered as riding a wildly galloping horse without ever taking a break. You should perceive of the metaphor as a comparison with a rider who (at least partly) has control over the horse they are riding. A good rider also has faith in the capacities and judgement of their horse. After all, the animal was born to walk and jump.
Translating this to the learning process, this means that feelings, thoughts, and behaviour are, on principal, aligned in such a way that they move along with each other. We can trust that they do. Motivation does not disappear for no reason whenever you are undertaking an activity which flows from a conscious decision, aimed at achieving desired goals. The flipside of this trust is responsibility. A student cannot persist in saying they enjoy their studies if they keep putting it off and they can’t keep putting it off if they really enjoy their studies.
As soon as a student makes the conscious decision to study, they must make a commitment to align thinking, doing, and feeling for this purpose. In other words: act arduously or do not act at all, but whatever you do, avoid doing things half-heartedly. This statement, too, isn’t meant as a platitude. It describes the essence of our functioning.
The ultimate learning experience is often referred to as ‘flow’. The concept was first conceived by psychologist Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi and it describes a condition of ultimate functioning. Your memory-constructs are aligned with your circumstances so well that you are completely absorbed in the learning process. It is utter concentration and attention with which even your self-consciousness disappears. The rider and the horse become one; in a manner of speaking they become a centaur.
The loss of self-consciousness is logical rather than surprising. Ego may sometimes prove an excellent guide, but other times it can just as much get in the way of things. It is fine to wonder now and then whether you are on the right track, but as soon as you make a conscious decision you should release the reins and allow the horse to run to its heart’s content. Absorb yourself in the process; not like a zombie but rather the opposite. Become a snorting centaur that is enjoying the wind and its powerful hooves. Open all of your senses and do what you were born to do.