What physical therapy taught me about learning.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I had bone surgery back in July, and since then have been going through a typically non-typical recovery process.

Starting in August, I attended physical therapy twice a week. This involved me doing lots of balancing exercises and walking over tiny orange traffic cones, like a polite Godzilla. Later, as my recovery didn’t go so well, it involved being wrapped in a lot of heating pads and stretching on the floor.

I was never totally immobile, but I still had the task of essentially learning to walk again. When I was doing well, I felt happy but nervous because I couldn’t explain why; when I wasn’t doing well, I fell to pieces because I really couldn’t explain why. I didn’t have the insight or even the vocabulary.

The overarching lesson was this: I had almost no schema for the learning that I was doing while in physical therapy.

It’s not that the therapists had all of the answers; it’s just that they had an infinite level of content knowledge and experience compared to me. This was fascinating on an abstract level, but frustrating in practice. (Same with my surgery — I was fascinated by the x-ray of the titanium hardware screwed to my femur, but dismayed that I really had not understood what on earth they were going to put in me until after the fact.)

So, I began to take note of how the instruction was going, and what I needed to make sense of my learning with my limited understanding of the field.

  • Explain the purpose of the building blocks. The first exercises I was asked to do — isometric muscle contractions — seemed almost stupidly easy. It wasn’t until I got up and walked around that I could tell that those very muscles weren’t doing what they normally did, so all of the flexing mattered. After that, I asked about the purpose of each exercise.
  • Describe possible mistakes in advance. In those first sessions, when things were going well, my therapist would compliment me, but then also make a serious-but-vague statement: “you don’t want to pick up bad habits.” I had no idea what those habits could be… until I did pick them up, and got my pelvis seriously out of whack in the middle of October. Could that have been avoided? Probably not, but I would have felt more empowered if I had known what my messed up state might look like.
  • Provide a baseline. A couple of months into the work, when I could begin to imagine getting back to “normal,” I realized to my dismay that I couldn’t even remember what “normal” looked like in terms of standing and walking. I had never established a baseline — no photos, no video, no concrete memory. Maybe blame the whole medical system for this one: nobody thought to mention this in advance of my surgery.

To be clear, I don’t fault the therapists I see with this situation. They treat thousands of people, most of them with shorter trajectories than mine. But the whole process has definitely made me think twice about how educators have to work to bridge them and students who might be complete novices in their particular area of expertise.

When do we, as teachers, become so “expert” that we isolate the students who are at the starting line?

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