Sunday, April 22, 2012
Dance or Life - Conditional Learning: The Power of Uncertainty
Many ballroom, or social dancers believe that the best first exposure to a dance form, as well as the best continuing instruction, comes from the most highly specified, detailed, technical "correct" teaching. We believe this because teachers constantly tell us this. They tell us that they are the experts, that there is only one correct way to do the dance, and they know all of the exacting details of that One Way. To learn otherwise, they say, will "engender bad habits."This sounds convincing, doesn't it? Those teachers know that this approach sells, because that's what most people want to hear.
But you are confused because you know that each of your dance partners is different in a wide variety of ways... different shapes and sizes, different ways of moving, different levels of dance experience, different paces of learning, each having learned from different teachers, or from no teacher – just picking it up on the fly from their friends. Social dancing is for enjoyment, so you respect and even admire that each of their different backgrounds is valid, and you enjoy adapting to their differences.
However there are some dancers and teachers who will disagree with the validity of individuality and personal preference. They feel very strongly that theirs is the one and only Correct way to dance, and that all of the other versions are wrong. They will force their dance partners to dance in exactly their own preferred style, or they'll criticize their dancing as "incorrect."
New research shows that when we're presented with facts as absolute truths, even math and science, we tend to use them thoughtlessly, often making bad, inappropriate or limited decisions. But when we're presented with the same information in a conditional way ("Maybe it's so, but maybe it's also this other way."), we process the information, and use the information, in smarter, more effective, and more creative ways.
Someone may reasonably argue, "Sure I can be flexible later, after I learn the basics of a dance. But in that first learning, I want to do it the one correct way, with all of the precise details." And this is where Ellen J Langer and others most strongly disagree. Ellen Langer specializes in the science and psychology of learning and states that "Whenever we attempt to learn something, we rely on ways of learning that typically work to our detriment and virtually prevent the very goals we are trying to accomplish. The mind-sets we hold regarding learning more often than not encourage mindlessness, although learning requires mindful engagement with the material in question.
Mindfulness, as we use the term, is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context. Instead of actively drawing new distinctions, noticing new things, as we do when we are mindful, when we are mindless we are stuck in a single, fixed perspective, and we are often oblivious to alternative ways of knowing.
Experimental research, conducted over 25 years, reveals that the costs of mindlessness, and the benefits of mindfulness, are vast and often profound. Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in accidents; an increase in memory, creativity, a decrease in stress; and an increase in health and longevity, to name a few of the benefits.
And, as will become clear, there is power in uncertainty, yet most of us mistakenly seek certainty. Facts are typically presented as closed packages, without attention to perspective. Most of what we learn in school, at home, from television, and from nonfiction books, we may mindlessly accept because it's given to us in an unconditional form. The information is presented from a single perspective as though it is true, independent of context. It just is.
One of the "basic skills" of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it in bite-size pieces to students. For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature. But facts, whether derived from science or not, are not context-free; their meaning and usefulness depend on the situation. Virtually all of our facts depend on perspective. When we ignore perspective, we tend to confuse the stability of our mind-sets with the stability of the phenomenon. Things are constantly changing, whether we like it or not. And at any one moment they are different from different perspectives, Yet we hold them still in our minds, as if they were constant. This is a part of human nature — an especially unhelpful part.
Learning the basics in a robotic, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity. It also deprives learners of maximizing their own potential for more effective performance and for enjoyment of the activity. Consider tennis. At tennis camp I was taught exactly how to hold my racket and toss the ball when serving. We were all taught the same. When I later watched the U.S. Open, I noticed that none of the top players served the way I was taught, and, more important, each of them served differently. And each one varied their own technique to adjust to their different competitors.
The key to this better way of teaching is based on an appreciation of the conditional nature of the world and the value of uncertainty. Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt, and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them. Here's a quote from Gilda Radner, as she was dealing with cancer: "I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity."
I've been teaching dance conditionally, not absolutely, for decades. But not because of Langer's research. It's because conditional uncertainty is the greater truth of social dance. I've always presented social dance as, "This can work, but another way can also work," because that's the essential truth. The lesson I give my students in their very first week is, "If it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way." It's only recently that I've come across Langer's research that shows that conditional teaching also helps people learn better, use information more effectively, and creatively, with fewer mistakes, and enjoy it more. In their first week of learning a dance, they discover that if a move doesn't work out in their expected way, it will work out in another cool way. And they can come up with those ways themselves.
This approach also leads to increased self-confidence. Dance taught me that. Arthur Murray also said that dance taught him self-confidence, back when he was a shy uncertain young man. Do you ever lie awake at night worrying that things won't work out the one way that you believe they must? Or oppositely, do you know that if it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way, and you get a good night's sleep? This way you worry less, and you're open to new paths when they present themselves. This is a significant part of self-confidence — knowing that you can make things work out for yourself and friends, one way or another. This also helps us look at life freshly, as it is, and as it's always changing.
To quote Helen Keller, " When one door of happiness closes, another opens - but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us." We need to welcome chance intrusions into our expectations. Beyond dancing, wanting life to go exactly as you wish it, and wanting people to behave just as you want them to, is violating a basic tenet of life. If you have that response, you will find yourself fighting losing battles all of your life.People are going to be the way they are. Do you want to spend your life fighting that? Or wouldn't you prefer to find ways to appreciate and enjoy the great variety of opinions, personalities, knowledge that other people present to you?