What makes learning so difficult? Is it the challenge of finding the right teacher? Or perhaps sorting through the deluge of “over-information” that most of us are confronted with on a daily basis? While those may be challenges we must overcome, I do not believe they prevent most of us from learning.
So what is the biggest obstacle?
It is shame!
My observations over many years confirm that most of us have been conditioned to feel ashamed to admit that there is something that we do not know. This is further supported by our direct experiences within the U.S. school system, and even most family environments, from early childhood on.
The shame that we have experienced in the past due to not knowing is often compounded by fear. It is easy to become fearful that we will be “found out”. That is, discovered to be lacking in knowledge, found to be “deficient” or “less than”. So we may be afraid of the shame that we anticipate is likely to occur.
To avoid this risk, we often go to great lengths to hide our lack of knowledge. It is easy to see why spending my energy in pretending that I already know makes it much harder for me to learn. Furthermore, if I am pretending that I already know something, how can I ask the questions that would lead to the real knowledge and learning?
Our conditioning does not help us. We have been conditioned to believe that is it NOT OK to admit that we do not know. Instead of valuing the discovery that there is something we do not know as an opportunity to explore and learn, we have been very well trained to interpret the experience as confirmation that we are deficient, that we are “less than”.
I do not believe that this is the natural state of human beings. Rather, I believe that it is a pervasive form of dysfunctional societal conditioning. I do not believe this is natural or healthy. It certainly does not lead to joy and fulfillment. And I do not see how it makes learning more effective or more efficient.
Our natural learning state: We have all seen the joyous innocence with which very young children routinely make discoveries and learn. Think back to the awe we feel when observing a human baby as it discovers how to open and close its hand, how to move its arms and legs, and later how to walk.
Notice how many times the baby fails because it does not yet know. Does the child feel or experience shame when it tries to walk from the edge of the couch to the coffee table and falls halfway there? Not really. Instead the child usually gets up, and, undaunted by its clear lack of knowledge, goes right back to learning.
Now contrast this to standing up in class and giving the wrong answer when asked what 6 times 9 equals?
Can you imagine this dialog: “Yes, teacher, thanks for asking me. I’m so glad that I have no idea how to solve this equation. Now I get to learn how to…” Hard to imagine, isn’t it? The real way that dialog might go is in marked contrast to what the young child would say, if it could talk at that point, when he or she was first learning to walk.
For most of us there is pervasive shame attached to not knowing – toxic shame that does anything but help us to learn.
It is too bad that our culture inculcates such shame into us around not knowing. It just sucks the joy and excitement right out of learning, doesn’t it?
This not only does destroys the joy of learning and discovery, it also makes learning nearly impossible. How can we learn when we cannot safely acknowledge what we do not know?
I am reminded of the famous Zen parable about the student pouring tea for the master, who tells him to just keep on pouring, long after the cup has overflowed. The student asks the master why he should keep on pouring. And the master explains that the student is too much like the teacup, already full so there is no room to “pour” in new knowledge.
School painfully reinforced my fears. Some of my earliest memories of school are those painful ones where I was humiliated for giving a “wrong” answer. And, of course, the converse was true – those who gave the “right” answer or who otherwise demonstrated what they already knew were esteemed and rewarded. Too often, our culture, both for children and for adults seems to reward those who give “good” answers more than those who ask good questions.
Now, more than 50 years after my early school experiences I still see it all around me. Most people are reluctant to admit that they do not know. But how else can one learn?
I have worked hard to unlearn the shame of not knowing and to celebrate my own curiosity. Yet, I must always be on guard against reacting to the possible shame of not knowing.
How common is this problem? I’m guessing this is a very common problem, which could likely be solved, or at least greatly improved by discovering the specific unconscious beliefs that lead us into shame when we do not know. These beliefs seem to lead many of us into fear of having our “not knowing” discovered.
Free to learn? Think how liberating it would be to feel free to celebrate not knowing and to no longer feel compelled to “defend” our ignorance, or worse, to feel we must hide it. Imagine the joy being restored to learning from a place of genuine innocence and authentic, open curiosity.
I don’t know about you, but to me this seems like one piece of common human programming that we could afford to lose.
To your health and joyful honoring of your native curiosity!