Five Lessons from my Nephew on Learning

I spent last week in Cincinnati with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews, Elliott and Benjamin. I hadn’t seen them in a while, and I just wanted to spend some quality time with them. Despite the frigid cold, it was restful and wonderful. I spent a lot of time in particular hanging out with Elliott while I was there, sitting in on his second-grade class, watching him practice cello and hockey, and trash talking our way through a marathon game of Parcheesi.

Elliott’s a sweet, goofy, playful eight-year old, easily distracted by the world and its many pleasures, but full of beautiful insights. I suppose it’s not surprising how creative and thoughtful he is, given his two musician parents, but he often astonishes me with his observations. A few years ago, I was reading him a bedtime story about a tree dying in the forest (why are children’s books so depressing?!). Midway through, he suddenly stopped me, and asked me to repeat a line. “That’s so beautiful,” he said after listening to the line again. And it was! But I wouldn’t have expected someone his age to pick up on that. Heck, I hadn’t picked up on it.

Elliott’s in the enrichment program in his class, and his teachers rave about him, but he’s not book smart in the way my sisters and I were growing up. We were Class-A nerds, perfect at spelling and math. We picked things up in the classroom easily, and we loved to read and study on our own. Elliott’s good, but not great at those things. His mind clearly works in different ways. I’ve been able to watch his learning process in a punctuated way over time, and on this trip, I saw a lot of things that both surprised me and reinforced some of my thoughts on learning and pedagogy. Here are five things I learned.

1. You can practice falling.

I grew up loving sports, and Elliott took to sports at an early age as well. I loved sharing that with him, and I bought him his first glove and basketball. But then he took an unexpected turn. He decided that hockey was his favorite sport.

I’m from L.A. I didn’t watch or play hockey growing up, even when Gretzky joined the Kings. Even though I went to school in the northeast, where they have silly events with vaguely insidious names like “Beanpot,” I never took to the sport. I didn’t know a puck from a crease.

When Elliott became a hockey nut, our relationship was suddenly reversed. Now he was the one sharing with me something that he loved, something that I knew nothing about, but that I wanted to learn because of him. My friend, Eugene, was telling me recently about a similar experience he was going through with his son, and how much he was enjoying it. It’s a special experience.

As part of my ongoing immersion, I watched my very first hockey practice last week, and I saw something that blew my mind. In hockey, you practice falling.

Elliott Falls on the Ice

How brilliant is that? We were not meant to move our bodies at breakneck speeds on hard, frictionless surfaces, especially with other bodies simultaneously trying to bodycheck us off the ice. Even the most skilled skater is going to fall many times throughout the course of a game. And so rather than put their blind faith in the athleticism of their players, coaches teach players how to fall, and they have them practice it over and over again. It made me wonder what the equivalent of falling (not failing) was in my work, and how I could practice it more intentionally.

2. Improvement can take time to see.

My brother-in-law is a cellist, and Elliott started taking cello lessons when he was three. Both my sister and brother-in-law are steeped in the Suzuki method, which emphasizes learning by listening, playing in groups, and space. (More on space below.)

Elliott has always had a natural sense of rhythm and an affinity to music, but I’m not sure he’s passionate about cello. Maybe that will come over time. I know for certain that he doesn’t like to practice it, which makes him like just about every other little boy in the world.

Elliott at Orchestra Practice Elliott and Ms. Nadine

Nevertheless, he’s been playing for five (!) years now. I’ve gotten to watch him practice every time I’ve visited. He’s not any more enthused than he was when he started, but he’s definitely better. I can see that viscerally. I doubt that he can, and I wish that he could.

Incremental improvement takes time to see. You notice it immediately when you’ve been away from it, but it’s just about impossible to see when you’re living it every day. Elliott sometimes got frustrated by his “lack of progress,” both with the cello and with hockey, but he simply wasn’t able to see the amazing amount of progress he has made.

It reminded me of my own frustrations with Groupaya last year, when I felt like we weren’t learning fast enough. When I was able to step back, look at the actual data, and take a long view, I could see how mistaken I was. Learning takes time, and progress is not always immediately visible.

3. Space matters.

Elliott’s cello teacher, Ms. Nadine, is a master of space. She knew that I would be sitting in on his lesson, and when I walked into her practice room, she already had a chair ready for me… behind Elliott, so that he couldn’t look at me during the lesson. Her room was designed to eliminate distractions so that her students could focus on two things: their instruments and their teacher.

I was similarly impressed by Elliott’s school. (More on this below.) His classroom was designed in really smart ways, redefining what most people understand “classroom-style” to mean.

Elliott's Second Grade Class

The class was split up into small groups, facing each other rather than the teacher. (His teacher later told me that she would rather divide the class into even smaller groups, but couldn’t due to space constraints.) There were folder pouches on the back of each chair, allowing the students to have whatever they needed closely on-hand, so they wouldn’t be distracted by large bags lying around all over the place. Everything on the walls and on the floor had meaning behind their placement.

As I said earlier, Elliott is easily distracted, yet it was amazing how much of an impact environment had on his ability to focus. I have long believed in the importance of this, and yet, my experience in Cincinnati has me wanting to reassess my workspace for ways that it can help me perform better.

4. We could learn a lot from existing schools.

I think there are a lot of problems with our school system. I’ve worked in education, both formally as part of my consulting practice and informally as a volunteer. Everyone has horror stories to share, many from personal experience. And yet, it always makes me cringe a little when I hear categorical rejections of our current ways of learning.

What I’ve known from my previous work and what I got to see firsthand last week is that there are a lot of good things happening in today’s schools, stuff that folks in other fields could learn a lot from. It wasn’t just the space (although the classrooms at Elliott’s school were designed more thoughtfully than most office spaces I’ve seen). It was also the teaching, the curriculum, the pedagogy, and the work practices.

I’ve spent so much of the past 10 years thinking about how groups learn, playing with different ideas and looking for models that work. One place I haven’t spent much time examining is our current school system, probably because I carry the same biases that I described above. I’m reconsidering that. I think there’s a whole lot more I could learn about learning simply by spending more time in schools, especially at the elementary level.

5. Learning should be joyful.

I’ve been doing a lot of culture change work with groups over the past few years. Something that’s come up repeatedly in different places has been the desire to reintroduce joy as a cultural goal. There is something primal and important about joy, and it’s a little bit sad how often we as adults need to be reminded (or worse, persuaded) of this.

Whenever I see both of my nephews, they give me a refresher course on this. This is their nature. They derive joy from connection, from achievement, from play, from learning, from love. It is a beautiful thing to watch and experience, and I’m lucky to have such wonderful teachers.