The Best Way to Learn Anything
“A day um qwee lay tiff ee kot u vem tu tem may um” (I’m obviously
spelling phonetically), Father John shouted at us. We (a group of 4th
grade altar boys to-be) repeated those words (and more Latin prayers)
while going up and down a school stairwell, balancing a relatively heavy
open bible across our forearms. The obvious strategy: Keep going up
and down until you got it right.
The Latin prayers were never translated, so we did not know what they
meant, nor did we care as the rote memorization project took its toll,
especially on one of my weaker, uncoordinated classmates who
dropped the holy book, tumbling down the stairwell – “Oh my God!”
I am sure those words had some very significant historical context that
would have been interesting to learn about. These prayers were mostly
about asking for forgiveness and honoring the saints: maya cupa, maya
maximus cupa, etc.
All I remember is carrying this heavy book up and down the stairs until
we got it – that was how it was drilled into us. The ones who could easily
carry the good book, because they were more athletic and stronger,
typically learned the prayers faster, being unencumbered by the
exhaustion clouding the thoughts that some of us weaker ones were
My teachers from K through 12 were all Franciscan nuns and priests,
and I find it very unfortunate that I have very few fond memories of
them. I can’t fathom up any inspirational moments that may have
emanated from the Franciscans to influence my life in positive ways –
perhaps my memory fails me. This is odd because I lived across the
street from the convent and about five houses down from the rectory. I
was literally surrounded by Franciscans. My interactions with them,
however, were limited to the time I spent at school or in church, both of
which ironically lacked any real meaning.
In those days corporal punishment was allowed. I was hit several times.
I vividly recall one of my good friends being viciously slapped in the face
because he was talking out of turn – this was in the first grade. Once in
Catholic high school I was punched square in the face by a Franciscan
priest for being disruptive in class. Another time I had to kneel on my
hands after school – in what they called “jug” – as punishment for
getting into an after-school fight.
We, as a society, have learned a lot about how we learn since those silly
and damaging days.
Today, the most effective learning is mostly about experiencing things.
Stated simply, we learn by doing. I learned more about writing as an
interning feature writer for a metropolitan newspaper for one summer
than all four years of my undergraduate years as an English major.
How much do we learn by listening? In the altar boy scenario, we learn
only how to repeat things drilled into us – rote learning. We still do it
here in our educational system; it is just not as prevalent as it used to
be. The emphasis we place on certain kinds of fill-in-the-blank testing is
a good example of how we still emphasize rote learning.
I was never any good at taking such tests, which has been to my
detriment at times. I did not get accepted into a graduate school that I
was interested in many years back primarily because I did poorly on a
GRE exam. I ended up taking a graduate course as a non-matriculated
student with cohorts who did much better on the GRE, and I
contributed much more to the learning and discussion going on in that
class than anyone else.
I also went through all kinds of trauma in high school when they almost
did not grant me a diploma because I got a 64 in geometry, which I
hated. The teacher was a big fan of rote learning. I did get a 95 in
English only because I did not have to memorize anything – only read
books and write essays that my teacher found to be intelligent and
written without any glaring errors. This rare positive experience is more
than likely one good reason why I’m a writer today.
And what about workforce training? When I was in the corporate world,
the training I received was never quite right. There was always
something lacking that I cannot pin down. I remember paging through
three-ring binders of information for sales training that did not leave a
mark on my skills, and it cost the company a lot of money.
Has workforce training gotten any better? I don’t know.
What’s needed to effectively teach anyone anything? The short and
simple answer: passion and experience.
Thanks for stopping by,
“Change is the end
result of all true
- Leo Buscaglia