When Learning is Like Breathing: On Awareness and Evaluation

One of the biggest revelations offered by people who live outside of schools and enforced curriculum is just how effortless, how ever-present, how natural learning can be. People sometimes ask me how I learned a specific thing, growing up, and I often have trouble answering. Both because, by now, my childhood was quite a while ago and my memories aren’t as clear, and also because, when you’re not using a curriculum, the exact mechanics of how learning happens are not always so easy to track.

This is definitely the case when it comes to writing. The short answer is that I just… started doing it, and got better over times as I gained more skill and experience.

Sometimes learning is as natural as breathing, and like breathing, when you become too aware of it, too conscious of lungs expanding and expelling, you can throw it off, start breathing too fast or unevenly, a natural process made complicated through hyperawareness.

An author who was writing about self-directed learning once offered to pay me to document how I learned a new skill. At first, I agreed, but I quickly found that the act of scrutinizing the process irrevocably changed it, made it into something stilted and self-conscious. Even my own gaze could be turned into something that felt like evaluation, could be made somehow external and detached from self.

There’s a difference between that type of assessment and picking part of the process to offer for critique and observation. It’s a part of life to take a specific result–an essay or piece of art or demonstration–and present it to others for evaluation of some kind, and I have done that willingly, even cheerfully, many times over. It is not the same as intently watching and cataloguing each step, asking over and over is that learning? What about that? And, even worse, finding yourself judging which parts aren’t learning. To internalize that evaluative gaze is to self-police, to place yourself on a narrow track and administer scoldings when you stray too far into the bushes.

I think it’s important, for individual learners and those journeying with them, not to get too caught up in the details of what’s happening right now, if you can help it. It’s one of these things that forms a more complete picture only when looking backwards, when you can see how the different pieces of the landscape came together–a mountain dropping to valley below, that collection of happy little trees–to complete the whole.

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