Five years out of college—and taking a year off from teaching—I find myself in a precarious new position: dangling by ropes, 35 feet up a wall, a beginner again.
Learning to rock-climb is as exhausting and fun as I’d hoped. I’ve spent hours rising and falling, hauling my body from Point A to Point B, returning home too drained for anything but Facebook and Orange is the New Black. I’d half-forgotten how exhilarating and vulnerable it feels to begin something.
Because my mind exhales analogies (in much the same way that my body exhales CO2), I’m constantly drawing connections between rock-climbing and teaching math. In my own grunting and straining, I hear the graceless echo of my students’ efforts, but from the other side. Back in the classroom, I was the one holding the ropes, with two feet planted on flat, sturdy ground. I assured them not to worry, that I’d catch them if they fell. Now, I’m the one clinging to the wall, hoping like heck that the ropes don’t break.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned up on the wall. Not the lessons about rock climbing, but the lessons about learning itself.
1. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you can explain it.
As a teacher, I always pressed for explanations. The approach baffled some students, who knew math demanded right answers, but had never bothered to issue detailed accounts of where those answers came from.
Now, coming down off the wall, I land right where my students once stood. “How did you make it over that ledge?” I don’t know. “Did you use that foothold, or the one further out?” I couldn’t tell you. “Did you balance with your right hand and reach with your left, or vice versa?” No idea. I’m lost in the gray mist that my students know so well: I can do, but I can’t say why. The knowledge lives in my muscles and instincts, not in my verbal, reasoning mind.
Rock-climbing has reminded me that, before you can explain your understanding, there’s an intermediate phase: knowing how without knowing why. Continue reading