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Sep 052012

It’s back to school season. As an interpreter working in public schools, that means for me it is also back to work season and get as many workshops in as school will pay for season. This year’s all day district workshop for interpreters (one of the few days that we actually all get to see each other before we scatter to the four winds to struggle to explain what we do to teachers, administrators and students), we spent the day learning how to learn. It’s an odd concept until you think about it.

We all know that we need to keep on learning. That really shouldn’t be news to anyone out there. The thing is, once you get out of classes – and even while you are still in them – you have to learn how to learn. This is a failing of our school system these days. They don’t spend anywhere near enough time teaching kids how to learn and then wonder why so many of them don’t figure it out on their own. But that’s a rant for another day. For now I’m going to focus on my own experience of learning how to learn, both through this year’s workshop and from other experiences that I’ve had recently (and some not so recently).

In the workshop – which was focused on interpreting skills for obvious reasons – the instructor started with making us list our strengths. The other interpreters at my table giggled a lot about this. “Yeah, how is this going to help us. These are the things we are already good at,” one of them said. The reason became clear in a few moments when we realized how horrible we all were at listing our strengths. I was able to come up with a list of four in the five minutes we were given for the activity – and I had one of the longer lists. Yeah, we were that bad at it. So listing our strengths is not a strength. Got it. The instructor wasn’t surprised either. He then told us that this was a skill that we should all work on improving, because one of the best ways to improve your skills is to know what you are already good at.

Oh really?

Yes really. I’ve noticed that myself in my writing. I’m already good at dialog – not great and I can alway improve, but it is one of my strengths. So when I want to work on another skill, like description, I improve more when I mix the description with dialog in my writing exercises. How does that work? I can only guess that it has to do with my willingness to keep trying. If I pair a skill that I need to work on with one that I’m already good at I get the feeling of success that helps me keep trying.

The other thing that knowing your strengths does is keep your pride up. Pride, according to our instructor, is a major indicator of success. Pride comes before success, not after as so many of us assume. Yes, the things that people are proud of tend to be their better efforts. By the time an outsider sees them, they are already darned good. So it’s easy to see why you would think that the pride comes from the accomplishment rather than the other way around. This illusion is so wide spread that we talk about it as though it were reality. In truth though, it is the pride that drives the success. Again, if I look closely at my own life I can see it that way. Long before I graduated with anything resembling fluent ASL I felt pride in my choice. I’m still not published, yet I have pride in my writing. I only just started Belly dance class and still haven’t figured out how to get all of my muscles to work they way they are supposed to and yet I have pride in that skill too. I’m not crowing about all this stuff yet, crowing comes from actually succeeding. So, even though I’ve never thought of it that way before, I can see that pride comes first.

So now, in the first hour of an all day workshop our instructor has managed to turn our vision of learning on it’s ear. So what do we do about it? Well, there are some practical things that adult learners can do to help them improve the skills that we want. Again, these were taught specifically for ASL Interpreters, but I’m sure that it will be applicable to other skills – I know I plan to use this method for my writing, cooking, gardening and all the other skills for which I don’t have a teacher leading me through a class.

Step 1 – list your strengths. This is to make sure that you remember why you are qualified to do what you do. Also, so that you know where to turn for strength when you start working on your weaker skills. Don’t think that just because something is a strength that it can’t be improved – it can. These skills should find their way into step 2 too.

Step 2 – make a list of the things you want to improve – be detailed. Don’t just say “I want to improve my ASL skills”. Say “I want to increase my proficiency in reading fingerspelling”. This list can be as long as it needs to be. If you have 50 specific things you need to improve, so be it. Remember that some of the items in this list also appeared in the list for step 1.

Step 3 – prioritize your list. What’s most important? Next? And so on down the line. If you don’t prioritize you could easily be overwhelmed by the length of your list and that is more discouraging than anything.

Step 4 – make a plan for working on the top item on your list. Your plan should be short term and very specific. If your goal is: improve my proficiency in reading fingerspelling – your plan should be “I will recognize three fingerspelled words without stumbling in a conversation. To do this I will practice recognizing fingerspelled words in videos, I will practice fingerspelling into my mirror, I will ask ASL fluent friends to quiz me.” Or something of that nature.

Step 5 – follow your plan to success. This may seem rather obvious, but so often it isn’t. Once you’ve made your plan you have to actually do it. You are free to revise the plan if it isn’t working, but you have to actually do the work.

Step 6 – when you succeed move on to the next item on your list. Does this mean that improving your comprehension of fingerspelling is perfect now? No, it goes back on the list to wait for it’s turn again. But you’ve succeeded, so move on. Besides, if you keep pounding on the fingerspelling you will never get to the part about forming full sentences and you need to ride that success for a while before you will be ready to improve fingerspelling again anyway. There are plateaus in learning a skill – right after you achieve something you will be on a plateau for that thing so you might as well move on rather that beating your head against the wall until you are ready to learn again.

Step 7 – repeat from step 1 again. Yup, you have to periodically make your lists again. Time happens and circumstances change. Your list of priorities might have changed. Your list of strength can change even when you aren’t working on it specifically. That’s one of the fun aspects of learning: not all of it is conscious.

As with anything in education YMMV (Your Millage May Vary). I hope that you’ve learned something from all this and will use it in whatever form works best for you.

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