Learning how to learn

After an immensely enjoyable weekend of learning Lindy Hop with my partner in Bristol recently and with our intense Tai Chi retreat with Chen Bing in Greece looming beautifully on the horizon I have been mulling over the art of learning. For when I spend time with my teachers, Chen Xiao Wang and Chen Bing, I am always keen to learn as much and as well as possible. Learning is a fundamentally liberating experience and vastly enjoyable on many levels. This is especially so when the subject or skill at hand facilitates and emphasises mind/body integration. For me, remembering facts and information has very little to do with education and in fact very much interferes with learning proper. There are lots of people who can talk the talk (i.e. regurgitate useless information and stories) but not so many that can walk the walk. So when at our Lindy Hop workshop I saw that the teachers were excellent dancers who moved really well and in a lovely natural fashion I was very happy to follow their instruction. I watched them intently and listened very carefully to all of their instructions making sure all the time that I followed as well as I could continually updating and improving the basic steps I had learned previously. This required a lot of concentration which I liked because when one really focuses on what is happening in the present moment it is a seriously liberating experience and here that real learning takes place.

Chen Bing Demonstrates – watch like a hawk!

Over the last two decades I’ve attended a great many different Tai Chi classes, private lessons, workshops and seminars. Of course, I have also been teaching full-time for the last ten years or so and spent many hours training on my own. It is really interesting to see that everyone gets something different out of each class or seminar. The worst thing is when someone feels that they haven’t learned anything from the teacher or that they are not getting what they want. They often blame the teacher, however it is down to each individual to be responsible for their own learning.

Probably the main factor that influences ones ability to learn is having the actual desire and perseverance to do so. Without this it is rare that people are able to pay attention enough or are willing to go through the inevitable discomfort of not knowing. However, without entering the ocean of creative uncertainty it is impossible for us to do or produce anything new. In psychology a model of four stages of competence is often used to describe the learning process:

1) Unconscious incompetence

The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.

2) Conscious incompetence

Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

3) Conscious competence

The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

4) Unconscious competence

The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.


Corrections are like a gift – capitalise on them

From my experience as a teacher and as a student it seems that most practitioners of Tai Chi never get past the first stage of ‘unconscious incompetence’ which is indeed a great shame. In seminars people complain that what the teacher is teaching is too basic or that they didn’t learn what they thought they needed or desired to learn. Often they wanted to learn some really tasty technique or hear a profound verse of wisdom that they can recite to themselves (or others – bloody teachers!). Usually, however, the teacher is trying to teach exactly what we need to learn and most of us in stark reality really struggle to achieve basic basics which take hours and hours of personal practise time to realise on the most simple physical level. This vital and solid foundation is what paves the way to the superior health and fitness benefits and of course any real martial skills that one can glean from good Tai Chi training.

Chen Bing demonstrates 'Lazily Tying the Coat'

Listen carefully and follow every instruction – not just the ones you prefer. You’ll be suprised at how much you miss!

I was chatting with Chen Bing, a teacher I really admire, over dinner one time and he said that in order to really understand and know Tai Chi, to really improve one’s ability, one has to look for errors in one’s practise and not simply revel in the things you can do well or just go through he motions blindly. The key, he added, was learning how to pay complete attention to what you’re doing, to accurately feel your entire body and mind, and search out the elements/deviations that do not correspond with the Tai Chi principle in the most simple and visceral way. From here, he said, you can really grow although it is a never-ending process. His final thought, which he added with a wry smile, ‘it is just like life’.

Follow attentively – never assume anything

So, my advice for all you keen learners and especially those players joining us with Chen Bing in Greece later this month is this: learn how to pay attention. Here are some tips that I find useful:

i) Watch the teacher like a hawk, perceive his movements as deeply as you can. Give your mirror neurons a chance to help you out and feel as if you are doing it too. Don’t think, don’t intellectualise, categorise or judge, just watch and experience as best you can.

ii) Listen very carefully and follow all of his instructions to the letter. If you assume that you are already doing so then it is very likely that you are not! Instead, assume that all the instructions are aimed at you specifically and not someone else. Which of course they are.

iii) Focus intently on finding out whether or not your body is doing what you think it is. When you follow the teacher allow 50% of your attention to be on perceiving his movement and the other 50% on your own. Don’t follow blindly, drift off of space out – pay attention!

iiii) Never assume you know anything. Practise diligently and consistently on your own to make Tai Chi yours. Any corrections the teacher gives you are like a gift. Don’t just ignore them, find them and feel them, make them your own.

I still can’t Lindy Hop very well but I know that I will be able to if I simply Pay Attention, Practise and Persevere. Enjoy!


This entry was posted in Chen Bing, learning, Martial arts, mindfulness, movement, Tai Chi and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Learning how to learn

  1. k8macdo says:

    Your observations on how to learn resonate well with me. If there isn’t openness on behalf of the student to the teaching, no teacher will ever get through to the student. In my tai chi class (I am a student) I see many people join and then leave the class even before the end of one session. There seems to be a prevailing attitude that wants to fast-track learning tai chi. But that’s impossible… in the end I think that it is a process that has no end. The more closely you look into it, the more there is to fine tune, learn, and unlearn!
    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

  2. David says:

    Good post, I liked it. One of my teachers is a Doctor in Psychology. He wrote something similar, but much more complicated. I think you nailed it how different people learn. I haven’t have much time to visit your blog (or other’s) lately. Hope you keep on writing. 🙂

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