Tag Archives: Learning process

Final exams (and learning how to swim)

It’s that time of year… I just took my final exams in Mathematical Economics. One more exam to go.

The experience of taking that finals reminds me of the swimming lessons I took before my teens. (This was in the sixties, if you must know.) Every summer, the Bernardo Park in Quezon City offered formal swimming lessons for the youth. The park had a clean and well-maintained public swimming pool (25 x 50 meters, I think). Since the pool was just a walking distance from our house in Kamuning, it was very accessible and convenient. I went to swimming class with some friends in the neighborhood.

The program was run by “Sir Luna”, a swimming trainer and a real professional, who conducted it at the pool’s shallow end (4 feet deep).

We started with “bubbling”, learning to breathe in out of the water, and breathe out in the water. Exhale through the nose, inhale through the mouth. The key was in the rhythm. Exhale, inhale. You had to pace yourself. Exhale, inhale. We must have done the bubbling routine tens of thousands of times by the time we finished the course. Exhale, inhale. Note very well: exhale first, then inhale.

After bubbling, it was paddling. Standing chest-deep at the shallow end of the pool, arms stretched out in front and on the gutter, we paddled with the left arm, and then the right. Left, then right.

Then, we were introduced to the “flutter kick”. While we held on to the gutter, we started “fluttering” our feet a few inches up and down, knees kept straight. We also did the flutter kick across the width of the pool, at the shallow end, but no breathing. Just face down, arms stretched in front, and looking at the pool’s bottom as it moved slowly past us. When we ran out of breath, we stopped.

After several training days, we also did the routines two at a time: bubbling and paddling, bubbling and kicking, paddling and kicking. Then we tried all three. We held on to the gutter, facing the swimming pool edge, most of the time.

After two weeks or so of these, we got to try all three routines away from the gutter. The hardest part was the breathing. If you lost your rhythm, you breathed in at the wrong time and took water. You had to stick with the “bubbling” exercise, day after day, until the rhythm became part of you, and your muscles knew by themselves, without any conscious thought from you, when to inhale and when to exhale, just like you do out of the water.

This was, I think, the key – for one’s lungs to learn the exhale-inhale routine and to do it without conscious thought. One by one, my classmates got it, and they started to actually swim by themselves! Then, they were allowed to play at the deep end. But I still didn’t get it. My legs, arms, neck, nose, mouth and especially my lungs had not learned enough. I’d lose my rhythm and then inhale at the wrong time and take in water. I must have drank gallons from that pool.

To graduate, one was expected to dive from a diving board at the deep (9 feet) end of the pool, and swim the 50 meters to the shallow end. In full view of relatives, friends and guests. On graduation day, my friends all made that graduation dive. I wasn’t ready, so I didn’t. After graduation, graduates were granted free access to the pool for the rest of summer. Sir Luna was kind enough to give me access too.

For the rest of summer, my friends and I enjoyed that pool. They played at the deep end, showing off their new swimming skills. They loved diving from the diving board. Although I stayed at the shallow end, I enjoyed it as much as they did. Then, one day, it just came. I finally got my rhythm and I started swimming too! So, before the summer ended, I also got to play and to dive at the deep end.

One of our professors in graduate school had told us, “sometimes, you learn more from the tests you fail.” How true. “But your grades won’t show it,” he added. Indeed, failures can often teach us lessons better than success. We call it learning the hard way.

By the way, I made that graduation dive the next summer.

Freedom in schools

Being a 55-year old student seems to have given me a unique perspective. I am going through an experience that is usually reserved for the youth, but I do so with the benefit of half a century of hindsight.

I can see clearly now the two parallel strands of school life – the regimented part, and the free part.

Regimented learning. It was educator John Holt who wrote eloquently how regimented schooling, from the primary grades to the university, tended to suppress the joy of learning. The school was a prison, he said. I can easily appreciate that observation, having spent three years myself as a political prisoner. Children who went to school – university students are no exception – are forced to learn one topic at a certain hour and a certain room, whether they wanted to or not, whether they were ready for it or not, whether they were interested in it or not at that particular time. The lecture, and its variations, remains the main teaching vehicle of this regimented method. High technology has not improved things. The computer and the LCD projector has made it even easier for teachers to indulge themselves, with their presentations and bullet points now available for instant display at the push of a button. Under such regimentation, most students gradually lose their innate love for learning. Instead they feel bored, sleepy, uninterested, constrained, and even tense, lest they couldn’t answer a teacher’s probing question.

Freedom lives. Fortunately, the undercurrent of freedom has survived in schools. It is best represented by the library, where one can indulge one’s love of learning, reading whatever gave one joy for that moment. In the library, freedom lives. Students who have not lost completely the innate curiosity and love for learning that makes us human can nurture it here and give it a chance to grow and to flourish. The books in the library have been my best teachers, whenever the textbook didn’t make sense. If a topic was specially hard, I’d pick several books on it from the shelves and browse them. Usually, I’d find a book or two whose authors talked to me as if they read my mind, what I knew and what I didn’t, and what questions I asked myself. When browsing, I would often come across a specially interesting title; I took the book to my desk too. This is real freedom. This is what learning should be. If educators understood this, they would build the learning process around it, not around classroom lectures.

More and more schools are getting connected to the Internet. Unfortunately, some school administrators see the Internet as an extension of the regimented system. They add a subject in the curriculum entitled ‘Internet’, assign that subject a time and a room (the Internet Laboratory, or some such name), like they do with Math, Physics, Biology, etc. How tragic that they can’t see it an extension of the library instead, as a new space where students can exercise their complete freedom to learn according to their own schedule and inclination, on their own time.

If I were a lecturer, I would conduct my classes this way. In the previous meeting, I would have assigned students to read a particular chapter or chapters in the textbook, reminding them to try to understand the chapter content. The class would then start with a question-and-answer session. The students would ask me what wasn’t still clear to them, after taking the effort to understand the material. This part would clear the remaining obstacles to understanding. It would be a discussion, an exchange, not a sterile one-way spoon-feeding of sentences which are better read than heard. Studying from books, one can always go back and reread a difficult phrase, as many times as necessary; it is hard to learn from lectures, because lecturers have no rewind button. By the way, I will even encourage students to write their questions and sign it with an alias, if they want to ask simple questions but don’t want to sound stupid. I’ve often felt the same thing.

When all questions have been clarified, I would give an “unquiz”, basically a problem set that the students have to solve in class, again, either with their true name or an alias. It will not be graded. But it will test them if they could now apply what they just learned to actual problems. I now know that one of the most important phase in learning, which I had underestimated when I was younger, was the actual problem-solving exercises. Pilots accumulate “flying hours”, students should accumulate “problem-solving hours”. It’s as simple as that. If you want to get good grades, solve the exercise problems. The more you solve, the more you learn. It’s a pity most teachers choose to solve problems themselves on the blackboard, to show their students how to do it. What a waste of time. They should be assigning the exercise to their students, and then testing them in class with similar problems. This is how students learn. The “unquiz” would give the teacher a very good window into the strengths and weaknesses of every student in class. Those who need special attention and help should then get it.

The third part of the class will be another question-and-answer session to wrap up the students’ learning experience and questions that arose while doing the problem-solving. This part would cap the students’ positive learning experience. It will be a final chance for the teacher to add icing to the learning cake.

Finally, before leaving the class, I would announce the reading assignment for the next class meeting.