Learning or performing?

A while a go I wrote an article about the fear of failure and how it affects our ability to learn. The idea I put forward was that we learn by our mistakes, so if our main goal is never to make a mistake we limit our capacity to learn. You can read it on this site (On Learning Through Failure).

Recently I saw a talk by a learning expert called Eduardo Briceno which approached the problem from a different direction. Mr Briceno’s idea is that in many things we do, such as at work, in sports and other pastimes, and even at school and college, we divide activities into ‘learning zones’ and ‘performance zones’, and I started thinking about how this relates to bell ringing.

When we are in our performance zone we carry out a task that we know how to do, though not necessarily perfectly, and we try to carry it out without making a mistake, or as well as we are able. This is easy to relate to ringing. You might be about to attempt a peal of Bristol Maximus, or the tower captain may ask for some well-struck call changes, or it may be almost anything between. Your priority is not to learn but to perform the task as well as you can and not make a mistake. You may feel under pressure not to get it wrong, even during a practice evening. In this scenario your capacity to learn is limited by the need to perform well.

When we are in our learning zone the goal is to improve at whatever we are doing, or master something we wish to learn. The prospect of failing is a lesser source of stress because it is anticipated. If you want to learn to ring Stedman Doubles and you have studied it at home the next stage is to try it. So you do so at a practice where there are friendly people who know you. You have several attempts and each time you mess it up you are given some helpful advice and analysis. Then the tower captain says ‘OK, we’ll have another go at that later’ and when you do, at the end of the practice, you get through it and another hurdle has been jumped. This is a real-life scenario because it recently happened to me.

The two things, performing and learning, are quite different. We limit our capacity for improvement by not being clear about which ‘zone’ we are in or by remaining in the performance zone when we ought to be in the learning zone. This links with the concept of learning through failure. If you fear failure because you think you will look a fool or let everyone down or get shouted at, you stay in your performance zone, doing things you know how to do. You may become very good at Plain Bob Doubles but never tackle Grandsire. You’re an ace at Plain Hunt ‘by numbers’ but you never take a flyer and try doing it by ropesight or by ear. To learn you have to set out to learn and be comfortable with the certainty that you will make mistakes.

Of course there is more to it than simply deciding we want to learn. What do we wish to learn, and how are we going to do it? I suppose that if you ever reach the rarefied heights of Bristol Maximus your bell ringing technique will be either flawless or as good as it’s going to get. A lot of time will be spent performing rather than learning. This is supposition on my part as I will never reach that standard. For those of us who are more in the learning phase of our ringing, which is most of us, the situation will be different. We can help ourselves by thinking about what we want to achieve, and by looking at the components that make up our ringing skill. I might want to work on my ropesight or my ability to listen as a means of improving my striking. I might wish to be able to stand my bell reliably when asked to do so. If we develop a shopping list of things we wish to do, discuss that with our tower captain, and then work in a targeted way towards achieving them, our rate of progress will to be greater than if we keep our heads down and hope we aren’t asked to do something we’re not comfortable with. It sounds so obvious, but I suspect we have all been guilty of keeping quiet and lying low.

And of course being more analytical about what we wish to work on, and more communicative about it, will help the tower captain. She or he may have an opinion about your needs, but why not discuss it? Many towers lack the skills to help learners do all that they wish to but if the TC knows that above all else you want to develop your ropesight or that you would just love to conduct some call changes, at least you can talk about how to go about it.

TCF, 2/17