ODY: 16/365. Life in the Flats.

Plateaus in the learning curve…

I learned about this concept in the Education Faculty at the University of Windsor (Ontario), and it has served me wonderfully ever since. Here’s the summary. Any sort of learning is an organic thing, and it does not happen in straight lines. In other words, if you put increasing knowledge or skill on the vertical axis of a graph and the passage of time on the horizontal one, progress is not a smooth upward line. In fact, even if you’re working hard to learn something, anything, there are flat spots in the graph. Plateaus. And it’s during these flat spots, when it seems like we’re not getting better/stronger/smarter, that we are likely to give up on learning French, developing a better jumpshot or staying on the midlife road to guitar glory (of the most feeble kind).

Especially as a basketball coach, but also while nursing kids through an especially difficult part of a novel or play — with Shakespeare, it was Act I — The Plateau was something I loved to explain to young learners. Those flat-line periods are not only frustrating “I ain’t gettin’ anywhere” times, but they are also necessary to the learning that comes after them. The brain (and the hand, and the eye) can’t learn continuously. It takes time to consolidate what has already been taken in before more can be added. Digestion.

Little was more encouraging to my students and players, and more likely to convince them to persevere, than understanding about plateaus. When they knew that the flat line was not a sign of death but a launch-pad to new learning, hard work didn’t seem, well, so deadly. And, as you’ve guessed, I’m only writing about this because Yea, though I walk the flats of the valley of pointlessness, I shall fear no guitar practice, for I am only on a plateau in the learning curve, and this comforts me…

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