A question about learning.

When you were a kid, what was that thing that took you extra-long to learn? For me, it was telling time. For some of my friends, it was reading. I am very curious to know about that thing. Why didn’t you understand it? What was it that you were doing wrong? What was the one simple “key” that an adult could have given you to unlock the mystery?

Until I was 10, I had no idea how a watch represented time. I saw numbers and understood that they referred to the time of day. I did not understand why there were two different hands pointing to those numbers. If someone had said to me, “The little hand points at the hour number. The long hand is not pointing at any numbers- it’s marking off fractions!”, then I would have understood. Although I was also confused about the fact that there were so many ways to say the time (15 minutes = quarter past, etc). I guess I needed to start with 60=hour, 30=half, 15=quarter… I don’t remember anyone ever explaining that to me. I do remember sitting there in a fog and staring at the two hands and mentally adding together or multiplying the numbers each hand pointed to, trying in vain to get numbers as big as 15, 30, 45. So confusing. I was always a pretty good student, but while my peers learned to tell time in first grade, I was clueless until about fifth grade. I like to think this is the reason I’m usually late.

A friend who’s been diagnosed as dyslexic told me that she learned to read by memorizing the overall shapes of words. So to her, the word yellow was coded basically by its silhouette, as “dangly-normal-tall-tall-normal”. She didn’t really look at the individual letters, but rather at their relative heights. Obviously this is not helpful when you’re later presented with Yellow or YELLOW. She memorized the overall shape-variations of a zillion words instead of learning to look at words as being made of individual letters, inefficient system that leaves you lost when you encounter a new word, which will of course snowball into anxiety for a child who’s learning to read so much slower than her peers.

Another friend said she thought that the important parts of letters were the negative space inside of them, not the line itself. So to her, a capital B was two stacked semi-circles, not a straight line and two curved lines. When she wrote, she would carefully draw the negative space instead of the line, which means her printing didn’t translate naturally into handwriting. This also made word recognition tough for her when she encountered new fonts and handwriting.

I think these little learning quirks are really interesting. I bet they’d be worthwhile considerations for teachers, too- I always think it’s important to learn not only that I’m doing something wrong, but why it made sense to think that wrong thing, and how the wrong-yet-intuitive answer relates to the real answer. Do you remember the things you took forever to understand? What was the key that led to your AHA! moment?

5 Responses to A question about learning.

  1. jennyhead says:

    My big 3 were: tying my shoelaces, telling time, and riding a bike. I sadly do not recall my aha moments for the laces or time-telling, but I finally got the bike thing sorted out at 29.

  2. MinusTheLinus says:

    Multiplication in 3rd grade. Everyone around me was nodding their heads in understanding, but I just couldn’t grasp it. So, multiplying a number by 1 is just…the number? It was very counter-intuitive at the time.

    It also took me forever to understand algebra-based physics, but that’s a different ballpark…

  3. i_frolic says:

    I can’t remember mine but it really piques my interest about the negative space in between the lines. Like you said, learning it a different way but still getting to the same point albeit a little slower.

  4. carlyjay says:

    I am so with you with the telling time thing. I had the biggest problem with it. Interestingly, I also had problems writing my numbers correctly — I wrote them backwards (as in, the number 6 was facing the wrong way, etc) until second grade, maybe even later.

    I’ve actually had problems with numbers my whole life — while I can do basic math, I can’t do anything complicated, and even long division and multiplication takes me longer than the average Joe. I find this infuriating because I consider myself a relatively intelligent person, so this mental block as far as numbers are concerned drives me insane.

    I’ve self-diagnosed as a dyscalculic; apparently all the above issues are symptoms of same. Also interesting, my issues with picking up choreography may be related as well; I got rhythm, I got music, but dancing specific choreography is painfully difficult for me, and try explaining THAT to a casting agent. “I’ll be fine if you cast me, I just bring a tape recorder to the dance sessions and write everything down, and then work my ass off at home that night so I can be at the same level as everyone else by next run” usually translates to “DO NOT HIRE”.

    Good post, Stampy. I like you.

  5. AiryFairie says:

    Long division in Grade 4, I had to stay behind late one afternoon and have a one-on-one lesson explaining it s-l-o-w-l-y. I am now waiting for my adult eureka moment regarding taxes.

    An additional quirky learning moment offering: in Grade One I was reading aloud to the class and stumbled on the word “ok”. I was trying to sound it out, all “oooooook?” as if I was saying book without the b and I simply couldn’t figure it out for many long excruciating minutes. I was finally told what it was, but we could have sat there all day with me saying “Oook? Awk? Oak?” It was somehow just beyond my in-the-box-brain to see it as two letters and not an actual word.

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