What’s the Best Way to Learn Anything?

“A day um kwee lay tiff ee kot u vem tu tem may um” (I’m obviously spelling phonetically), Father John shouted at us. We (a group of 4th grade altar boys to be) repeated those words (and more Latin prayers) while going up and down a school stairwell, balancing a relatively heavy open bible across our forearms. The Latin prayers were never translated, so we did not know what they meant, nor did we care as the rote memorization project took its toll, especially on one of my weaker, uncoordinated classmates who dropped the holy book, tumbling down the stairwell – “Oh my God!”

I am sure those words had some very significant historical context that would have been interesting to learn about. These prayers were mostly about asking for forgiveness and honoring the saints: maya cupa, maya maximus cupa, etc.

All I remember is carrying this heavy book up and down the stairs until we got it – that was how it was drilled into us. The ones who could easily carry the good book, because they were more athletic and stronger, typically learned the prayers faster, being unencumbered by the exhaustion clouding the thoughts that some of us weaker ones were feeling.

My teachers from K through 12 were all Franciscan nuns and priests, and I find it very unfortunate that I have very few fond memories of them. I can’t fathom up any inspirational moments that may have emanated from the Franciscans to influence my life in positive ways – perhaps my memory fails me. This is odd because I lived across the street from the convent and about five houses down from the rectory. I was literally surrounded by Franciscans. My interactions with them, however, were limited to the time I spent at school or in church, both of which ironically lacked any real meaning.

In those days corporal punishment was allowed. I was hit several times. I vividly recall one of my good friends being viciously slapped in the face because he was talking out of turn – this was in the first grade. Once in Catholic high school I was punched square in the face by a Franciscan priest for being disruptive in class. Another time I had to kneel on my hands after school – in what they called “jug” – as punishment for getting into a fight.

We, as a society, have learned a lot about how we learn since those silly and damaging days.

Today, the most effective learning is mostly about experiencing things. Stated simply, we learn by doing. I learned more about writing as an interning feature writer for a metropolitan newspaper for one summer than all four years of my undergraduate years as an English major.

How much do we learn by listening? In the altar boy scenario, we learn only how to repeat things drilled into us – rote learning. We still do it here in our educational system; it is just not as prevalent as it used to be. The emphasis we place on certain kinds of fill-in-the-blank testing is a good example of how we still emphasize rote learning.

I was never any good at taking such tests, which has been to my detriment at times. I did not get accepted into a graduate school that I was interested in many years back primarily because I did poorly on a GRE exam. I ended up taking a graduate course as a non-matriculated student with cohorts who did much better on the GRE, and I contributed much more to the learning and discussion going on in that class than anyone else.

I also went through all kinds of trauma in high school when they almost did not grant me a diploma because I got a 64 in geometry, which I hated. The teacher was a big fan of rote learning. I did get a 90 something in English only because I did not have to memorize anything – only read books and write essays that my teacher found to be intelligent and written without any glaring errors. This rare positive experience is more than likely one good reason why I am a writer today.

And what about workforce training? When I was in the corporate world the training I received was never quite right. There was always something lacking that I cannot pin down. I remember paging through three-ring binders of information for sales training that did not leave a mark on my skills, and it cost the company a lot of money.

Has workforce training gotten any better? I don’t know.

What’s needed to effectively teach anyone anything? A short experience will stick in your memory better than a long, repetitive exercise.

What do you think?


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