On Expectations About Learning
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It’s the first night of a new choir season. The director hands out unfamiliar music and we open to the first page, the woman on my left mumbling about how she can’t read music worth a darn. I feel more confident than she does and join in bravely when the altos are instructed to sing our first six measures. The score helps me anticipate the melody, though I’m by no means a skilled sight singer, and by following the piano and the other altos I hit enough notes to feel satisfied. But I haven’t retained the notes, and when next we sing that line we’ve been joined by the sopranos, tenors and bases, and I can no longer hear my fellow altos. Since the cues I get from the score are only approximate, I’m incapacitated. I can hear the woman on my left, though not loudly enough to follow her, and she sounds good for not reading music. Has she memorized the notes after hearing them once? Even if she hasn’t, and her notes are wrong, I know other choir members who do lead their sections without reading music. This is a skill I envy, and I feel momentarily lost between the aurally sharp and the sight singers. I feel slow in comparison to those around me, unable to become familiar with the music fast enough.
At this point I have several choices. Desiring abilities I don’t have, I can blame myself for the deficiencies, believing that I’m not listening well enough; or I can blame fate, believing that I’m musically slow. Really listening seems overwhelming, but it also gives me control over my ability level, whereas feeling musically slow victimizes. Resisting either of these options, I can question my desire to sing at all, either writing choir off as a waste of time or deciding that even if it’s rewarding those rewards aren’t worth the effort involved.
All these potential reactions to a challenging situation bring up the question: What does one expect of oneself, and how do perceptions of what’s normal affect those expectations? Because while free of grades, free of curriculum demands, and often free of tests, independent learners are certainly not free of expectations and goals. Since as life learners we try to allow influences in our lives only if they prove constructive, expectations deserve evaluation.
Divided into the broadest of categories, expectation is either outside – what others think we should be capable of – or inside – what we think we should be capable of. Most of us have had generous experience with expectations from the outside, living as we do in a society whose majority goes to school. Unschooling demands that we become skilled at withstanding the expectations of people who feel threatened by how our choices reflect on theirs. But this article is concerned with the expectations that come from within.
Looking around at choir practice I see a teaching system based on a faster learning speed than my own and learners who seem comfortable with this system. The conclusion I immediately draw is that their ability is normal and my lack thereof abnormal because they represent the majority. This would be true if they actually did represent the majority, but I can’t assume that I’m the only one who learns slowly when I don’t know what percentage of slow learners it would take to require a slower teaching system; maybe just a few good singers are pulling the whole group along and I’m not actually alone in my struggles.
That said, the majority influences us because we expect to match what’s typical. If we don’t match up then we understandably feel lacking. Conversely, if we have standard ability but high aspirations we may also feel lacking because we want to be better than typical. In either case the average is a standard that pushes us to be better than we currently are. Only if we have no great desire to identify with our abilities are we indifferent to what’s typical.
To keep up with the other choir members, who practice very little on their own, I have to work songs extensively at home, and regardless if this is because I’m not listening closely enough or if I’m musically slow, I still have to practice. If I do so to seem normal, to dig myself out of the basement so to speak, then I’m likely to be resentful that monumental feats are needed just to be average. I’m likely to feel frustrated even if my skills improve, and I may wish to abandon singing altogether in a few months or years.
In other cases, when I’m wanting to be better than typical, I’m still likely to have a digging-myself-out-of-the-basement attitude until I reach a skill level I’ve defined as acceptable. Basically, using the average as a springboard can improve my skills, but as with all extrinsic motivators, it’s less than satisfactory. Instead, it’s helpful to define normalcy in a more encompassing way.
When a group of people all participate in a common activity, like choir, a typical level of competency can emerge. Not always, but when it does it’s labeled “normal”, and when an individual fails to match up they’re “not normal.” But if we consider that each of us has unusual ability levels – both above and below the average – in at least a few areas, (i.e. that everyone has “abnormalities”) then not being typical at choir hardly seems worth concern, because in the big picture having a few unusual ability levels is typical.
As soon as I make the commitment to see holistically, I see that everyone has a multitude of inadequacies (if adequate is defined as average). I notice that the woman on my left, though she has no trouble retaining a melody, is nervous about acting when we do operatic pieces. Acting happens to come naturally to me, and I’m once again in the minority, this time in the more-skilled-than-normal category. Suddenly I’m getting so many compliments that I’m almost glad I struggle with singing because it makes me feel that in the big picture we all have our share of talents and struggles.
But although holistic vision minimizes harsh comparisons against the norm by loosening the criteria for what’s normal, sooner or later we come up against some reason to doubt our normalcy...and it hardly matters whether our conclusions are accurate. The only way to have consistent confidence in our abilities is to abandon comparisons altogether. This isn’t to say that we can’t gain from occasional comparisons or shouldn’t see feelings of inadequacy as calls to improve our abilities, but in formulating expectations one has to see oneself as unique from “the person on the left.”
Each person experiences different degrees of struggle and ease in learning, but this doesn’t have to be a cause for insecurity if accomplishments are based not on a fixed measure of skill but on how far each of us has come and what it took to get here.
For me, practicing choir songs at home has come down to the satisfaction of gradually transforming fear and incompetency into ability. Certainly it’s frustrating that even with practice I’m not a great singer, and I have hopes, not unrealistic, of a break-through at some point, where I will reach a new level of skill and ease with singing. But this frustration melts away when I remember all the people out there who don’t dare come to choir at all, who will never experience the satisfaction of nurturing difficult skills into existence. Finally, I can value my reasonably good performance in choir simply because for me, singing reasonably well really is an accomplishment.
Katherine Michalak, unschooled all her life, wrote this article when she was seventeen. At the time, she wrote that she was loathe to leave her garden, her friends (er, family members), their beautiful home, and the tiny town of Crestone, Colorado, nestled against 14,000 ft. peaks. College was not a high priority but writing is.