Thursday, March 26, 2020
"Let's go surfing now" . . . artist Tom Sachs will teach you how. A fun film about adult learners and skill acquisition.
Let's take a break from Zoom tips and watch a fun surf video from artist Tom Sachs that offers good insights for teachers and students about the challenges involved in learning a difficult, new skill. One online surfing magazine even called it a film about the adult learner. This is our second installment in an occasional series "what-can-sports-teach-us-about-skills-development" - the first being a story about Olympic skiing champ Mikaela Shiffrin whose training regimen emphasizes technique over race results.
If you're not a surfer, like me, it's a sport whose grace and beauty belies its difficulty (a pro surfer featured in the film says he's spent 35,000 hours becoming an expert). The premise of the film is that Tom Sachs and some of his NYC staff travel to Bali to transform themselves from bad surfers into "OK" ones. In the course of their adventure, they offer many observations and truisms about the difficulty of learning new skills. One of the things that works well about the film is that it captures the struggles of the average athlete trying to improve their skill set. Understandably, many people draw their inspiration from watching sport stars, people at the very top of their profession. But for others (and perhaps especially 1L law students), they might better relate and identify with a group of average Joes striving to achieve modest competence.
Along the way, the film offers plenty of observations that anyone trying to learn a new skill might find reassuring while also boosting teachers' empathy for those same student struggles. Among them:
- There are some skills that can't be taught, instead they have to be learned (i.e., the teacher can show students how to do it but ultimately students have to put it together for themselves).
- Having the best teachers in the world, the best equipment, and the best support isn't enough to achieve proficiency. Students also have to put the hours in.
- Acquiring a new skill starts with learning the fundamentals (lesson # 2) but once you acquire those fundamentals, progress comes faster and you start to see for yourself how to get better still (lesson # 4).
- Learn from a master (lesson # 3). The best teachers have great passion for the skills they teach and are also able to instill that passion in their students.
- Yet for students, it's still going to take lots of hard work and persistence. Tom Sachs tells us that after surfing for 26 years and more than 1,000 hours, for him the sport is still a "small amount of joy surrounded by misery" (lesson # 6).
- "Compare and despair." Holding yourself to an expert standard when you're still a novice only leads to despair and undermines confidence. "Comparing yourself to others will not help you learn and will not help you grow." Instead, compare your present self to your former self and appreciate the progress you've made.
- "We all get spooked when we leave our comfort zone [i.e., wipe out] but when we do the things that we're afraid to do, even if we fail, we get better, stronger and braver" (lesson # 7).
- Getting hurt is a sacrifice made for competence. "Pain is the manifestation of learning" (lesson # 9).
- Persistence. "There is a reality to learning, you must put in the hours" (lesson # 10).
One of the things I find especially helpful about these pedagogical examples taken from the sporting world is that they give fresh insight into the challenges students face in acquiring new skills since we see the physical manifestations of those struggles. Pain, injuries, setbacks, fear, and loss of confidence are all made manifest in a way we don't always see as law professors teaching students who are grappling with ideas and intellectual challenges rather than physical ones.
Anyway, enjoy the film . . . I think it offers worthwhile insight into the struggles of the adult learner.