Learning Is Not Linear

teacher in a classroom

teacher in a classroom

By Casey von Neumann

This article originally appeared on the Casey McCann Blog

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So, I’m now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I’ve found that it’s best to not ask why I feel called to do something — I’ve just got to do it.

Not that I’m impulsive, necessarily — I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curricula. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

The surprise? I already knew what I was doing.

“Learning is a function of focused attention over time.”

It should have been obvious: Teaching academic subjects is not that different from teaching music. All of my best tricks, carefully cultivated over a decade’s worth of work with unwitting guinea pigs, are applicable here.

I have found myself rooting out the holes in each student’s collection of knowledge and skills and helping to fill them in, exactly the way I do when I work with a new piano student.

I had no idea this would work in math, reading, writing, and other subject areas.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “The Collaborative Classroom: Personal Strategies for Student-Centered Teaching.”

My method is unusual when it comes to teaching an instrument, and unheard of in traditional school outside of a special ed classroom. Having an eighth-grade A-student practice two-digit subtraction, or a sixth-grader go over times tables for speed? Reading the same sentence out loud several times in order to improve fluency? Aren’t there more important things we should be learning?

In a word, no. What could be more important than true mastery of, not just proficiency in, arithmetic? What could be more important than reading comfortably and fluently?

My middle schoolers, just like my music students, will move slowly in the beginning. They will appear to be moving backward. They will appear to be below grade level.

But just like a rubber band being pulled back only to snap forward, or the tide drawing back before a wave comes crashing onshore, these students will eventually make rapid progress.

Not only will they regain the ground they apparently lost, but it’s likely that their rate of progress will actually accelerate. In other words, they will move forward faster than ever before. Why? Because they will be confident, enthusiastic, capable learners. Things will seem easy.

I have seen it time and time again with my music students — even formerly reluctant ones.

Much of the time, learning isn’t linear — sometimes it’s a gentle curve and sometimes it’s a hockey stick. Don’t be discouraged if progress feels flat — just focus on mastery and you’ll be achieving at a high level before long.

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