When I read Jeff’s “How will you teach yourself to fly in 2013?” post, I didn’t know I would actually learn to fly in 2013.
But flying—what trapeze artists call what they do—is exactly what I did this past weekend.
On a trip to Miami, I passed a sign for the Flying Trapeze School in Bayfront Park on a morning walk. When I got back to my hotel, I looked up the Web site (http://www.theflyingtrapeze.net) and signed up for a class. (Please take note of the top-level domain. School staff are also fond of using “catch you later” whenever they can. I appreciate such attention to detail—and good puns.)
Three days later, I was back in the park, watching yachts on the glinting waters and jets growling in low over the skyscrapers. From a platform about 25 feet off the ground.
There was a net beneath me, and I was in double-line safety spotting harness. But climbing the shaky aluminum ladder and standing toes over the edge of the platform still got my adrenalin going.
In two hours, I learned how to do a knee hang, a back-flip dismount into the net, and be caught. To know exactly what I’m talking about, view the video below of my first attempt at the sequence that puts the knee hang together with the catch.
But I learned more than some basic trapeze tricks because the trapeze class also reinforced what I know about learning in general but sometimes fail to fully appreciate.
1. Learners Like to Be Competent
Poets John Ciardi and Miller Williams write in How Does a Poem Mean? that games (and they count poetry as a game) are things made hard for the fun of it. I consider games a specialized kind of learning—learning that is just hard enough to be fun and not so hard as to make one feel incompetent.
Jeff has cited psychologist Edward Deci on competence before: “The feeling of competence results when a person takes on and, in his or her own view, meets optimal challenges.” I left the trapeze class feeling competent—I’d met a challenge I’d set for myself, and I got the good, intrinsic rewards that came along with that accomplishment.
A big reason why I could walk away feeling competent was because the instructors scaffolded our learning—one of the instructors told us when to do everything, so we just had to listen. Timing is critical in flying, and if I’d had to master timing on my own in the first class, I’m sure I wouldn’t have nailed that first catch.
2. Repetition and Application Are Important to Learning
The staff were good instructors and adhered to basic teaching principles:
- Breaking processes down into components
We worked on the knee hang multiple times to make sure we could complete on it the first swing, before we attempted the catch.
- Repeating the key information
Of the four rules announced at the beginning of class, #1 and #2 both were “Don’t walk under the net.”
- Having us apply what we learn
It doesn’t get more hands-on than putting both hands on that flying bar.
Equally important, the instructors made the environment safe (remember that harness and net), which gave us students the comfort (and courage) to try without excessive fear of what failure would bring.
3. Personalization and Customization Aid Learning
There were six students in my class and four staff. The staff learned and used all our names—something I especially appreciated, as my first name gets bungled so often.
But using our names also has a psychological benefit—a lot of what we were doing involved trust, and knowing the catcher and the spotter knew my name helped relax me.
Staff were also really good at reading our abilities and adapting as needed. One student had trouble getting his legs through his arms for the knee hang—he did it, but it was a struggle. On the next go-round, the instructors had him kick his legs up and around the outside edges of the bar rather than going between his hands—the student did it much more easily.
4. Teacher and Student Are Mutually Dependent
Teachers cannot exist without students, nor can students exist without teachers—the one implies the other, just as a flyer needs a catcher and vice-versa. Both parties have to do their part to achieve the goal—whether that’s learning or a double somersault.
5. Leave ’Em Wanting More
The best learning experiences leave me hungry. I’ve been in learning situations where I’ve hit saturation point, and I can’t take in any more—I at least need a break, and, at worst, the experience leaves me with a negative association with the topic. The two-hour class was just right—I left tired and satisfied and ready to come back again.
The instructor who took my paperwork at the beginning of class, noticing my last name, asked me if I knew Tony Steele. I did not. Tony Steele turns out to be a trapeze great. He left home to join the circus at 15, was the first to complete three-and-half somersaults to a legs catch (which earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, a record he held for 20 years) and still flies at age 76.
In a 2001 interview, Tony Steele says, “You form a mental block, and I took [those who suggested I do four somersaults to a catcher] to be crazy and stupid, you know. People put a limit on their goals, and who knows how high you can fly if you really go after it?” That language, read literally, is just what you’d expect from trapeze artist—and a perfect metaphor for all us lifelong learners who need to remember the biggest barrier to learning and accomplishment is often of our own making.
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