A question about learning.

March 22, 2010

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?