Installment #14: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

“The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.”

~e.e. cummings

Through the puddle.

Mac likes to ride his bike through puddles. He seeks them out; we go on puddle-hunts. It’s a lot more fun than riding around the puddles, and when he finds a puddle to ride through, he gets happy and excited and scared and tentative and thrilled. He speeds up as he approaches them, but where he used to pick up his feet so as not to be affected by the puddle, he now drags them through, taking his time through the puddle space, one splash, and then another, and another, until he’s at the other end of it, wanting to do it one more time, one more time.

Mac’s attraction to puddles leads me to think that inside the puddle there is a particular kind of experience that’s more attractive than outside of the puddle. Going through it is way more interesting (though not often easier) than going around it.  So what’s that about?

We can call upon the proverbs of “Every path has its puddle” and “You can’t tell how deep a puddle is until you step into it,” and apply that to learning. The puddle is the unknown; the challenging; the dirty; the temporal; the ambiguous. It gets really messy in the puddle, and the puddle can be deep, it can be long, and it may take us a while to slog through it (because we want it to, or because that’s just how big that puddle is). Puddles can be unpredictable and scary, and we may love the risk-taking involved in challenging ourselves to enter them. Alas, our favorite puddle may not be there tomorrow, and so perhaps the temporary nature of the puddle may also call to us. I also think part of the attraction to the puddle — for toddlers, and for learners– is that going through them can be fun and ultimately pretty rewarding.

Power to the puddles is what my toddler has taught me this time. Embrace the ambiguity and messiness of the puddle (of learning, or unlearning, or re-learning), and head into it, push through it, and come out better for it.  We will be soaked and mud-caked, perhaps, but we will experience something qualitatively more meaningful that the puddle-avoiders will never get to know.

e.e. cummings had it right: the world is puddle-wonderful. Where will your next puddle-hunt take you?


3 thoughts on “Installment #14: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

  1. Good learning, like puddles, is inherently messy. By “good” I mean the kind of learning that challenges us and takes us where we haven’t been before. When we try to make sense out of what appear to be unrelated bits and pieces, it can feel like we’re trapped in the muck and the murkiness, unable to see the big picture. Eventually, if we persevere, we are able to make meaning of the bits and pieces, and we emerge from the puddle to continue on the path until the next puddle. We may come to realize that puddles are not obstacles in the path to learning but are invitations to learning, and that getting in and engaging the messiness is an essential part of the process. The feelings of frustration and fear that we may never be able to make sense out of the mess may lessen as we recognize those feelings as just part of the process and have faith in our abilities from having successfully traversed previous puddles. We may also come to realize that strategies like trying to avoid puddles altogether or to get through them without getting our feet dirty are only time-wasters. (In my head, I see a dog pacing frantically back and forth in front of a large puddle, approaching but backing away, wanting to cross but not wanting to get his paws wet.) Best just to punge on in.

    I think one of the most helpful things we can do for our learners is to let them know that learning is messy. Adult learners especially are used to being “in charge” in their lives, and the messiness that comes with not knowing feels like a loss of control and raises fears that they will never be able to make sense of what they’re trying to learn. We can help them learn to recognize and tolerate the messiness as a normal and necessary part of learning and maybe even to embrace it.

    When we create learning activities for our adult learners, we are essentially creating puddles for them. We hope we can create really juicy, worthwhile puddles.

    The puddles metaphor made me think of a favorite quote from Larry Daloz, who uses a different but related metaphor about the path of learning:
    “Mentors toss little bits of disturbing information in their student’s paths, little facts and observations, insights and perceptions, theories and interpretations—cow plops on the road to truth—that raise questions about their students’ current worldviews and invite them to entertain themselves to close the dissonance, accommodate their structures, think afresh. (1999, p. 217)

  2. Sounds like certain doctoral journeys I recall co-presenting about! 🙂 Now where was that map, again? I’ve lost my way!

    Let’s Make Puddles!!! (They may, or may not, be cleaner than “cow plops.”)

  3. Pingback: Installment #15: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning « PrattleNog

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