When we think of learning, we imagine rows of desks and chairs in a classroom, number two pencils, worksheets, and lectures given in front of a drab chalkboard. Stacks of textbooks and thoughts of anxiety-inducing standardized tests also make their way to the front of our minds. But, is this really what learning looks like? Or rather, is this the only way learning can look?
In her recent TEDx talk, Rainesford Alexandra, a college dropout, business co-owner and contributor to both our blog and the Huffington Post, contends that, no, this isn’t the model that best facilitates our learning. She asserts that learning isn’t limited to school, and tests that are designed to measure whether or not students have memorized the right answer aren’t effective.
Curiosity and “not knowing the answer is the key to learning.” Which, by the way, happens to be the title of her TED talk.
During the talk, Rainesford explains why learning isn’t about having “the right answer” and instead, why it’s about the process or the search. Another way to say this was once summed up by one of the teacher’s that made a positive impact on Rainesford’s life, “There is no right answer – there is only what you think, how you learn, and how you see it.” While this isn’t true for mathematics, it is for most everything else in life.
What Rainesford highlights is exactly how we learn as children. We learn to walk, talk, jump, finger paint, and play ball by doing it. We learn to solve problems without our parents by doing. As we grow older, we still learn in this way, but most of us don’t recognize it as learning. We learn job skills, communication skills, we learn how to handle new problems and traverse new places, and how to adapt to our ever-changing, global world. Yet still, when we think of learning, all that comes to mind are the images of classrooms and homework.
In her talk, Rainesford says, “… a lot of us try so hard to get the right answers in school – or even just in life – [that] we miss the lessons happening right in front of us.” It’s true – we miss out on the learning opportunities we are presented with in everyday life because we don’t view them as learning opportunities. We’re too focused on getting the “right answer,” whatever that is to learn from the opportunities and experiences surrounding us. We just freak about about how we don’t know the right answer. But, by not knowing the answer we allow ourselves an opportunity to find the answer, and therefore learn. And that is the essence of real learning.
According to Rainesford, the biggest learning experience she’s ever experienced happened when she decided to write a book. She was surprised at the amount of people who told her to wait. “Wait until you’re older. Wait until you know how to write a book,” people told her, but Rainesford says that her love of writing was how she learned how to write; through practice. And by writing a book, she learned how to write a book. Not by taking a class or by Googling it, but by actually sitting down and writing it. By showing up every day and hammering out those words on her keyboard, not giving in to writer’s block or the pressures of people’s opinions. She taught herself through action.
Often, we have to take the first step (or several steps) in order to learn something. It won’t be handed to us because we don’t know the answers. We have to seek the answers in order to find them. We have to put in the effort to get results. And that’s what Rainesford did when she wrote her book.
Rainesford tried her best to get her book published, but no publishing company she contacted would publish it. For a while, this made her question if everyone was right, that she was a failure, that she didn’t know what she was doing and should’ve waited. But she realized that this was a learning experience. And then, when the rights to her manuscript were optioned to a producer who wanted to make a TV show out of her book, those people who told her to wait were proved wrong. But even if they hadn’t been, would she have learned any less? Would this be a less valid learning experience? Of course not! This learning experience just happened to have an agreeable ending.
“Mistakes are the most extraordinary teachers,” Rainesford tells us. And she is right. Even though mistakes hurt – imagine working super hard on writing a whole book and then getting rejected by publishers – they teach us more than successes do. This will happen if we are open to learning those lessons.
We need to pursue. We need to put in the effort. We need to be curious.
To watch Rainesford’s full TEDx talk.