Monday, February 11, 2008

More Lessons from Ballroom Dancing

A few months ago, I shared my insights on how learning ballroom dancing is similar to learning law.  After writing that post, I decided to work towards the my long-term dream of competing in ballroom dancing.

I had seven weeks to prepare for my first competition.  In that time, I had to learn three new dances (rhumba, foxtrot, and swing) and perfect those and two other dances (waltz and cha cha).  Here are some of the lessons that I learned and how they relate to our law students.

  • Learning something new can be scary.  There were days when I wondered what I had gotten myself into with my dream.  I was frequently reminded of how I felt as a 1L trying to sort out mysterious courses about which I knew nothing and questioning whether law school had been a good idea. 
  • Learning something new can be frustrating.  I wanted to learn steps more quickly than was humanly possible.  When I got frustrated at my "slow" learning, I had to remind myself that I tell my law students to be patient and take one day at a time.  I tell them that any new skill takes time. 
  • Learning something new can be embarrassing.  I stepped on my instructor's feet.  I looked like a klutz in front of a World Champion dance coach.  I had regular mental blocks in mid-dance.  Through it all, I had to know how to laugh at myself and realize that it was not the end of the world.  I sympathized with our students who are sure that the professor and everyone in class will remember their abysmal class performance for years to come.
  • Learning something new is easier if the instructor understands how I learn.  My dance instructor tries very hard to explain things to me in ways that I can understand.  He combines approaches to match how I learn: talking through steps, listening to my questions, verbal analogies, diagrams, and application as needed.  ASP professionals earnestly try to be cognizant of learning styles.  When our faculty colleagues do the same, more students can have the lightbulbs turn on in their brains.    
  • Learning by tying new information to old information really works.  New steps came more quickly when I could relate the rhumba to similar steps in cha cha, foxtrot to similar moves in waltz, and swing to English jive.  Our students also need to make associations of new learning to old learning or experiences for greater comprehension.  When they try to learn in isolation, they fail to see connections that help them build on learning. 
  • Learning the basics of something is not the same as perfecting that learning.  I realized that I can pick up the patterns and steps fairly quickly.  However, the styling and technique (that make the dances beautiful to watch) take much longer for me.  Our students often pick up the gist of a course pretty quickly.  Unfortunately, some of them do not realize how necessary precise rule statements, deeper understanding for perceptive analysis, and the fine points of fact patterns affect them.
  • Learning can be both exciting and drudgery.  The feelings of accomplishment and improvement over the weeks were inspiring.  I could see how far I had come.  However, doing the same three steps in a pattern hundreds of times to get my foot position or arm position correct was drudgery.  Necessary, but not fun.  Many of our students love the law.  Many of our students do not love law school because of the drudgery that can accompany learning.
  • Learning requires practice for many hours.  I could not just read about the dances, watch videos of ballroom dancing, or have my instructor tell me about the steps.  I had to practice diligently.  I went to hours of lessons.  I practiced steps at home while I balanced a book on my head so that my posture and frame were correct.  I did various exercises to train my muscle memory.  I condensed pages of notes on things to correct for each dance into the essentials to continue to work on right before the competition.  Too many of our law students spend hours reading, listening in class, and memorizing but never practice before they walk into the final exams.  No wonder their hard work has insufficient payoff.
  • No matter how well we do, there is still more hard work ahead of us to get better.  I was delighted to win the third place trophy for the overall competition first time out.  However, I now know what to work on before the next competition.  I have not perfected any of the dances.  And, for years to come, I can improve.  Our students need to realize that they need to perfect their study habits over time.  No matter the initial success there is room for improvement.  Newcomer level versus gold level is something that requires on-going dedication.
  • After all of the hours of hard work, life happens.  I was petrified for the first five heats in the smooth competition in the morning and again for the rhythm competition in the afternoon.  During the other 50 heats, I was fine.  I made mistakes that I had not made for weeks.  I suddenly did a cha cha step during the rhumba.  Hearing my students talk about their test anxiety during finals seems all too familiar now.  When they tell me they blanked or that they could only remember contracts in their torts exam, I have greater empathy.   
  • Ideally, learning never ends.  No matter how competent we may be in some areas of our lives, we shall meet challenges during which we are incompetent at the beginning.  However, competence grows as we open ourselves to learning new things.  We need to make sure that our law students remain open to learning new things and having the courage to be novices.  We need to cheer them on for their successes even when they are focusing on their failures.

Ballroom dancing has been good for me as a learner.  Now I can use my recent experiences to help my law students learn.  (Amy Jarmon)      

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