⌛AIP 80 Two Meta-Learning Mistakes Which Cost Me Hours Of Time

⌛AIP 80 Two Meta-Learning Mistakes Which Cost Me Hours Of Time

One of the drills I despised doing in my high school soccer team was dribbling through cones.

Every time my coach called the drill I’d audibly groan and angrily kick my ball over to the starting line as if it would change his mind. When my turn came, I would turn my brain off like a zombie, and dribble the ball through the cones like a good boy.

All the while questions flooded my mind.

Why were we dribbling through cones when we could be having way more fun dribbling on the field as a team? Why were we looking at the ground when we should be looking up? Why were we going in a relatively straight line when we would never in a real game?

Sure enough, when we actually got onto the field this dribbling practice proved relatively useless as time and time again I would get the ball easily stolen from me by other players. An alternative explanation is I just suck but blaming the drill makes me feel better so that’s what we’ll do.

You would think coaches would have caught on by now that this drill sucks donkey barnacles, but to this day many fail to ask the most basic question of any good skill practice: Why?

Why are we using this activity? Why does it improve our skill? Why is it better than something else?

Unfortunately, my disappointment didn’t end there because in my high school writing classes I experienced a different learning mistake.

In school, I was taught there was one right way to write. Apparently, the only worthwhile writing had an introduction, three body paragraphs, a conclusion, and a tinge of sadness that you weren’t doing something else. I wasn’t encouraged to individualize my writing. To write about something I deeply cared about. To find my own voice. To break the rules. To have three sentences start with “to” because that’s how I wanted my writing to sound rather than what sounds “prim and proper.”

Only when I started writing for myself on my blog and newsletter could I begin to develop my own style. One full of bad grammar, playful jokes, zest, and a tinge of early twenties angst.

You have likely experienced variations of both of the things mentioned above in your own way. Replace soccer with basketball, tennis, baseball, cooking, any skill based activity you can think of can have these same mistake show up.

In my soccer example, the fundamental mistake is you can’t separate skills from the environment they are used in–at least not without sacrificing on true learning. And in the writing example, the mistake is assuming you can slap the same fundamentals onto everyone and have them work the same.

Let’s explore both of these mistakes more in depth and their solutions so we can practice skills in a more informed manner.

Mistake 1: Separating Skills From The Environment They Are Used In

A real soccer game is fucking chaos–sometimes it can feel one step away from barbarism.

Players are bumping into each other like floppy mannequin, the ball is going this way, oh no, now it’s going that way. Information is constantly changing; the position of teammates and opponents, the speed and direction of the ball, the boundaries of the play area, and other factors.

All of this information plays a massive role in how we should dribble.

When you practice dribbling through static cones, the environment you are interacting with is drastically simplified. Cones don’t mimic the unpredictable movements of other players, the strategic decision-making required, or the pressure of real-time game dynamics. It’s like drawing the Mona Lisa in a 256x256 pixel art and than saying it’s the same as the real thing. As a result of this simplification, the skills developed don’t translate effectively to an actual game.

The way you feel also isn’t the same.

Have you ever obsessively practiced a speech on your own–I mean really nailed every word down to a tea–and then when you actually go up to give the speech you blank like a deer in headlights? Up on the podium, there are eyes on you. Living breathing human beings are expecting you to say something coherent. You weren’t prepared for the anxiety and pressure which was absent in your practice sessions standing in front of a mirror.

How can we practice skills better keeping this in mind?

Ask Why?

This first tip is so blindingly obvious I can’t believe I’m saying it. Ask why.

In soccer, are you trying to simulate a game? Are you trying to practice your defensive skills? Are you trying to practice dribbling?

My high school soccer coach used the dribbling practice session because every other coach used it. But if he had asked why, he would have realized it’s a dogcrap way to practice dribbling.

Instead, we could practice dribbling by playing a game which has existed for hundreds of years: tag.

Soccer tag involves players dribbling the ball around a circle and trying to avoid other players and the coach without balls trying to take the ball from you. Why is this better? For one, it’s actually fun. Two, it includes changing information which alters your dribbling just like it would in a game. And three, the feelings of nervousness and excitement that will come in a game will also be there.

All of this comes with just asking, why.

Make Practice Sessions More Gamelike

The second tip is to make practice more game like.

If you can’t separate skills from their environment, don’t! Try your best to practice in the same environment as you will play in the game.

Let’s use soccer as an example again. Many soccer coaches practice team positioning by drawing on a board in a classroom with their team. No good. Are you going to be playing soccer in a school classroom?

Instead, practice positioning outside with a board, but have your players actually run through the positioning right after talking about it on the field. This way the practice is more like the actual game will be and skills can translate.

Mistake 2: Forcing The Same Fundamentals On Everyone

The second learning mistake I faced with writing in high school is my teachers tried to force the standard method of writing on me as everyone else.

This problem stems from a larger issue regarding learning: many think the fundamentals are fundamental for everyone. But when we force fundamentals on someone without adapting to them, it not only can hurt their intrinsic motivation for the thing, but downright make them worse at it. So why do we still do this?

Many people still have the perception of the mind as a computer.

Regardless of the environment it’s in, a computer functions the same. Unless you spill your coffee over it, which, definitely did not happen to me… For coders this can be great. You can work on a single piece of code, plug it back into a bigger chunk, and run it. If the mind was like a computer, you could implement the same fundamentals on it and have it work the same across contexts.

But humans don’t work like computers.

According to Anne Murphy Paule in her book, The Extended Mind, our Cognition, the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses, isn’t brainbound but rather extends into the outside world.

In other words, our external environment directly affects the way we think, experience, and sense.

Our body movements, gestures, built environment, natural environment, digital environment, and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on our cognition. Our environment can change our cognition which can make us alter our environment which can alter our cognition which can… It’s a dynamic interdependent system.

For example, as an avid writer, I love taking walks in nature to think–partly, because I want to appreciate it before climate change kills us all (hopefully not) but also because the open environment literally “expands my mind” and opens me up to creativity.

Everyone perceives the same thing different because perception comes through the relationship between the subject and its environment.

One study showed people perceive a staircase differently depending on their height (Warren W. 1984).[^1] People of lower height tend to perceive higher height stairs as walls. Taller people, however, continue to see them as stairs. Same environment, different perceptions.

Similarly, In visual arts, the perception of color, form, and space can vary dramatically among individuals based on their visual acuity, cultural background, and even emotional state. In the United States I see red and I think, oh no big bad, blood, evil, rage. In China red associates with good fortune, prosperity, and happiness.

In Ecological Dynamics—a revolutionary theory of learning—it is said different people have different affordances—opportunities for behavior based on their unique subject to environment relationship. For example, in the staircase study from before taller people afford stepping on taller steps (jokes on you I would be one of those because I’m Dutch and tall).

All of this—differing perceptions based on the subject environment relationship and affordances—clearly show how the mind is not a computer and we can’t force the same fundamentals on different people. It’s like trying to use a circular cookie cutter to make square brownies; you might be able to but it will be difficult.

How Can We Practice Skills Better Keeping This In Mind?

Give People Problems Not Solutions

The fundamentals are fundamentally different between people.

I’m not saying the fundamentals have no use in skill practice. They should be taken into account. But they should be adapted to the specific person.

Instead of giving each person the same slapstick solution to a skill activity, let the individual person find their own creative solution to a problem. For example, one of my favorite ways to get writing assignments from professors is be given points to hit on or questions to ask instead of structures to use. This way, I can come up with my own unique structure and style for my writing while still hitting on some key points.

For one of my final essay assignments this year, my professor gave us this writing prompt:

1. Identify two concepts or approaches from within Educational Psychology found on the associated list in Canvas.

2. Explain the details of the concepts and how they intersect in a classroom.

3. Include elements of your fieldwork in the discussion about how these theories apply to a school setting.

4. Discuss ways you observe or would insert these theories into classrooms through delivery or management strategies.

Notice, he didn’t give structures but just points to hit on. The format is up to us. This opened us up to TONS of creativity. My final essay ended up being on what games can tell us about improving engagement and intrinsic motivation in the classroom. You can apply this same thinking to any skill based endeavor. Create a problem for yourself or someone else to solve that can help them come up with a personalized solution.

Thankfully, by uncovering both of these learning mistakes—separating skill from the environment it’s created, and trying to slap the fundamentals on everyone—I was able to begin learning more mindfully. That’s the beautiful thing about meta-learning. Through sharpening your meta-learning axe beforehand you can vastly improve your learning when you do start.

And it all starts with asking, why?

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[^1]: Warren, William. (1984). Perceiving Affordances: Visual Guidance of Stair Climbing. Journal of experimental psychology. Human perception and performance. 10. 683-703. 10.1037/0096-1523.10.5.683.

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