Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Rediscover the Joy of Learning

Stuff Your Eyes with Wonder (Deborah C. Stearns, 2013)
Trying something new, I began my Inspiration Series.
I love to learn new things.  In fact, I positively deliciate in learning.

* Deliciate = to enjoy or indulge oneself, luxuriate, revel, to take one's pleasure.  

Did you feel a little zing as you learned that word?  A recent study found that learning new words stimulates the ventral striatum, the part of the brain that is associated with reward and pleasure.  In other words, learning a new word seems to activate the same part of the brain as gambling, sex, and tasty food.  (One could say that this means you probably deliciate in learning the word "deliciate.")

I suspect that this is not just limited to learning new words, but is true of learning more generally.  There is pleasure in acquiring knowledge and mastering new skills.  One recent study of elementary school children found that:
joy arrives when the child surmounts a series of difficulties to achieve a goal. One of the authors’ videos shows seven-year-old Esko, tapping himself proudly on the chest and announcing, “Hey, I figured out how to do math!” A desire to master the material leads to more joy than a desire to simply perform well, Rantala and Määttä add: joy often accompanies “the feeling of shining as an expert.” (from http://www.creativitypost.com/education/wheres_the_joy_in_learning)  
Sadly, I think we often lose sight of the joy of learning.  I remember one student in my General Psychology class some years ago who insisted that there was nothing he wanted to learn -- nothing at all.  It made me unutterably sad.  Learning can be a wonderful experience, and yet many of us forget its pleasures, thinking of it only as joyless labor.

I am fortunate to work in a profession that is committed to lifelong learning.  Higher education is not only in the business of providing access to learning for our students, but also recognizes the importance of ongoing learning for faculty and staff.  For example, I was able to spend last year on sabbatical so that I could learn more about the flipped classroom approach and the science of teaching and learning.

But you don't need to be an academic or take a sabbatical to experience the joys of learning.  Want to learn something new?   Here are some suggestions.

I've been reading for as long as I can remember.
Books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.  ~James Russell Lowell
  • Read.  I read voraciously, learning from science writers, biographers and scholars of all types.  I find new ideas in speculative fiction and memoir.  I read online articles, physical books and magazines, and enjoy the occasional audiobook.  Reading is accessible in any number of formats, and can be enjoyed without cost through libraries and the internet.  If you are a bibliophile, definitely head over to Brain Pickings, one of my favorite blog finds this year.  

 Baining Night Dance Mask (Kavat)
made of bark cloth by the Central Baining people
from Papua New Guinea, New Britain
(from the Metropolitain Museum of Art, NYC)

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge. ~Thomas Berger

  •  Ask questions. Opportunities for learning are everywhere for those who are curious about the world.  When we ask questions, we open ourselves to new learning.  Ask questions of your friends and family to learn more about their lives and experiences.  Ask questions of experts to learn from their expertise.  Ask questions of yourself to learn more about your inner world.  If you can't find someone to answer your questions, go find the answer yourself!  (I'm still working on finding out more about the art of Papua New Guinea, for example.)
    We all have an Elephant's Child, full of insatiable curiosity.
    Drawing by Kate Reed (used with permission of the artist)

  • Research.  When you find a topic that interests you, pursue your curiosity.  Explore it in depth.  Follow links, look for additional readings, ask questions and find answers.  Become an expert.  I spend many hours researching to prepare for my presentations and it has led me to all kinds of interesting learning -- from the science of happiness to successful relationships to all corners of human sexuality (check out my posts on sexual language, the sexual double standard, and same-sex marriage, for example).  

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver (2012),
where I learned about traditional Chinese garden design

All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.  ~ Martin H. Fischer

  • Travel.  Travel offers us the opportunity to learn more about history, architecture, art, science, language and culture.  Explore the environment and notice what is different.  Talk to the people who live there.  Try new foods and have new experiences.  Read guidebooks to find out more about the places you visit.  Go to the local sights and visit the museums.  I always learn a lot from traveling, as you can tell from my extensive travelogues (such as my blog posts on Krakow, Prague, and Iceland).

  • Listen to podcasts.  There are so many great podcasts out there -- free and full of learning potential.  I listen to podcasts on long drives and while I'm cooking or filing.  Podcasts like This American Life, RadiolabInvisibilia, and The TED Radio Hour have given me insight into all kinds of topics I knew little about.  I'm looking forward to getting into Hidden Brain, as soon as I have some time, as I have really enjoyed Shankar Vedantam's pieces on NPR.

  • Watch documentaries.  No matter where your interests lie, there is sure to be a documentary for you.  I favor historical and cultural documentaries, and I'm always finding new ones to watch through Netflix.  (I haven't even finished all of Ken Burns' documentaries yet!)  Make sure it is a reputable source, of course -- not all of the "documentaries" on YouTube are accurate.  So check out your PBS station or other credible media sources.  Beyond documentaries, you can also watch educational videos at TED-Ed and learner.org.  
I learn from my students, too.
(Photo by Sanjay Suchak)
  • Take a class.  This gives you a chance to do more in-depth learning and connect with other learners.  Classes are available everywhere -- the local recreation center, community college, art/dance/writing centers, and other community resources.  Check out retail outlets, too, as you can find cooking classes at your local kitchen store, jewelry classes at the bead store, and ceramics classes at the art store.  If your local area doesn't have the class you want, there are plenty of online classes; you can study with experts all over the world without ever leaving your home.  I generally prefer face-to-face classes (such as the television/video classes I took last year), but I've also enjoyed several Craftsy classes and I'm looking forward to an online photography class with Ricky Tims that starts in January.  
  • Get private lessons.  If you know what you want to learn and can find someone to teach you, you might want to invest in private lessons.  These can be a bit more expensive than classes, but you get to focus on what you want to learn at your own pace and in your own time.  If you have a local expert, face-to-face lessons are a great option, but you could also consider distance learning via video calls (Skype, Google Hangout, etc.).  Over the last year, I've been studying pattern fitting with the fabulous Sarah Veblen, and watching her figure out the right shape for a sleeve or rotating a dart has definitely expanded my understanding of how to engineer clothing that fits well (though I still have much to learn).
What Would Your Eyes See If They Were Newly Bloomed?
(Deborah C. Stearns, 2007, made as a class assignment)
  • Try something new.  We often think of learning only within formal contexts, but we can learn anytime and anywhere.  Walk a different route and take note of what you see and hear.  Use a recipe you've never made before or tweak an old recipe -- what worked well and what didn't?  Explore unfamiliar types of music, art, performance, or athletics.  Try something new and see where it takes you.
Start off your year by rediscovering the joy of learning.  You know that learning is good for you -- it keeps your mind engaged and helps you grow and develop your capabilities.  But don't forget that it is also pleasurable.  So go ahead and deliciate in learning.  I'll be deliciating, right along with you.  

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