WASHINGTON DC – The Whittle School is a prek-12 independent school with an interdisciplinary and mastery based approach to learning. Katarina Slobodova, the Assistant Director of Admissions, Upper School Advisor, and occasional parkour coach, is bringing The Art of Learning principles to her 9th and 10th grade advisory group.
The advisory group meets three times per week and is designed to support students in developing a deeper understanding of themselves as learners, an understanding of the thematic interconnectedness of their academic and athletic pursuits, and a sense of independence and ownership over their learning processes. Slobodova is designing a series of lessons that incorporate The Art of Learning principles into this work. They are beginning by exploring what it means to have a growth mindset and the impact that has on how they work toward academic improvement. They will also look at the balance between personal achievement and the needs of the group or community, how to use a Beginner’s Mind approach in both new and familiar pursuits, and how the principles of Listening First and Using Adversity can help students develop agency over their own learning.
“Reflecting about many of the lessons from The Art of Learning with Katy has helped me move from personal development to professional development,” Slobodova explains. “Resources like The Teacher’s Guide to The Art of Learning have reminded me that a process-oriented mindset (rather than results-oriented) can be shared with students simply by being cognizant about our language use as teachers.”
FLORENCE, KY – Bryan McCartney is the owner and lead teacher at Heartseed Studio, providing private music instruction for students ages 5 through adult. In addition to private lessons, McCartney has taught the music course Guitar Methods at Cincinnati Christian University to music students interested in learning the guitar.
In his time as a music teacher, McCartney has discovered that many students struggle with internal motivation and maintaining a daily structure that allows for dedicated time to improve their musical skills. McCartney has begun his work with The Art of Learning Project with a focus on building his students’ internal motivation. Using the principle of Valuing Process Before Results, he is teaching his students to shift their focus from the end goal of a perfect performance to the incremental steps they need to take along the way. As they meet these incremental goals and see the progress that comes with intentional and focused practice, they will develop a deeper motivation to continue to strive and grow.
Live performances at a local Chick Fil A provide opportunities for Using Adversity and Investment in Loss. The experience of playing in front of an audience gives McCartney’s students the opportunity to practice channeling heightened emotions into higher levels of performance. They have also begun to look at the feedback they have received from these performances to explore how they can continue to improve and grow as musicians.
“One thing that really hit me in The Art of Learning was the idea of finding your inner rest, and creating a series of habits to unlock that rest,” McCartney explained. “I really like this idea of knowing yourself so well, and finding a way to maximize your time when you need to, that you can access calmness in any moment. This is something I hope to teach my students.”
The Wuwei Princeton Academy (for SuperKids!) offers an intensive curriculum in Tai Chi, mindfulness, and optimal performance to help children (grades 2 – 6) thrive. Founder and teacher, Mackenzie Hawkins, had been indirectly incorporating TAOL themes into her classes and wanted to begin teaching the themes directly to the young students who had been studying Tai Chi with her for the past three years. She hoped the themes would facilitate her students’ deeper investigation of how and what they were learning in Tai Chi. The Art of Learning Project’s vision—“When children explore how they learn they become empowered…”—became the main objective for their 12-week semester.
This required teaching TAOL themes directly to young children who were too young to learn them from reading and discussing The Art of Learning book itself. At the same time, Mackenzie didn’t want to teach TAOL themes without, as she said, “the sense of how this one person [Josh Waitzkin] is exploring all of this and taking all of this on. I would like to share that sense with my young students somehow because that’s the role model that helps it feel so real and interconnected.”
Mackenzie used short quotes from the book and The Art of Learning Project website for some of the themes and also wrote 8 short “Josh Stories,” illustrating themes from The Art of Learning book, which the young children could easily read and discuss in class. One story in particular (“The Boy Who Hadn’t Lost in a Year”) had an immediate impact on several of the students, enabling them to take on harder challenges with less stress. Mackenzie wrote after class that day, “As a teacher, I just can’t tell you how grateful I am for this.” She joked that Waitzkin’s stories should come with a caution label: May impact lives!
To further make TAOL themes more accessible for younger children, Mackenzie gave the learning themes more immediately descriptive names with easier words for kids, as well as linked them to visual cards (and stickers) based on the icons from The Art of Learning Project website. (Mackenzie created a Carving our Path PDF to give an overview of how she adapted the theme names and grouped them into three categories: Guiding, Discovering, and Applying. There are also PDFs of TAOL theme cards with the original names in the Tools for Educators and Coaches section of our website.)
For the first half of the semester, the children practiced and learned Tai Chi, using the challenges and reflections built into their SuperKid Game to explore their own learning through TAOL themes. During the second half of the semester, the children were given the challenge of designing their own Tai Chi independent practice plans based on TAOL themes, executing these plans in 10-15 minute practice sessions, and journaling about their experience. Mackenzie was thrilled with how the themes gave students both freedom and structure as learners because students could practice any aspect of Tai Chi they wanted to—in any way they wanted to—while using TAOL themes in doing so. With their heightened engagement and sense of self-reliance, the children naturally deepened their practice of Tai Chi during these independent practice sessions. Mackenzie wrote, “I can’t teach kids this ‘from the outside.’ Only when SuperKids are empowered as ‘captains’ of their own learning experience can they learn at this level.” (Throughout the semester, Mackenzie wrote in-depth parent emails describing the journey she and her students took together, including many samples of student work and comments. You can find her Wuwei Princeton Parent Emails – TAOL here.)
To “bring it all together” as a capstone project for the semester, the children could pick any skill that they wanted to get better at, such as playing a sport or musical instrument, and use TAOL themes to design, execute, and journal 12 independent practice sessions over 4 weeks in order to be awarded the Declaration of Independent Learner Badge.
In the final weeks, the children also prepared to host their Being Your Best Summit where they would have Q&A about learning with a very special guest, jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa. Through the lens of TAOL themes, the children read transcripts of Mahanthappa’s insights into how he excels as a jazz improviser and composer. Mackenzie reported that the children loved making “webs of connections” between the themes and would eagerly discuss how interrelated they are with each other. The children each gave BestX Talks (their own version of Tedx Talks) at their Being Your Best Summit, and one of the children’s speeches is featured in the Learning Journal Blog post “A Real Learner”. Another student’s “webs of learning connections” and TAOL insight notes are available under Student Work.
“What I have loved so much about the learning themes,” says Mackenzie, “is that they’ve been a way for us to connect the very specific to the very general—and everything in-between. There’s been a lot of moments this semester, when I’ve felt like saying, ‘Whoa—and wow!’” She continues, “It’s my poorly-kept secret that I teach what I need myself and what I wish I had learned earlier. What if I could have grown up with learning themes and with the sense of empowerment about my own learning process that came with them? What if I could have grown up with a role model showing how it was possible to develop oneself as a learner (of anything)? That would have been cool—and oh so helpful.”
Introduction and comments by Mackenzie Hawkins, founder/teacher, Wuwei Princeton Academy
12-year-old Anurag has been learning Tai Chi at the Wuwei Princeton Academy (for SuperKids!) for the past three years with his teacher Mackenzie Hawkins. In the Spring semester of 2019, they used The Art of Learning themes to explore how they learn Tai Chi in order to empower themselves as learners generally. At the end of the semester, the students each gave a talk at their Being Your Best Summit to share with parents and friends what they thought were the most important lessons. Below is SuperKid Anurag’s speech with explanatory commentary from Mackenzie.
SuperKid Anurag: This semester we learned about learning about learning. To practice this skill, for four weeks I worked on applying what I learned to improve my skills in basketball, and my improvement was more significant than just trying to do it.
Mackenzie’s note: As a final challenge, the children could pick any skill that they wanted to get better at (most selected playing a sport or a musical instrument) and design, do, and journal for 12 independent practice sessions using TAOL themes in order to be awarded the Declaration of Independent Learner Badge.
SuperKid: I understood my practice more by not just doing it but by also using the Guiding, Discovering, and Applying themes I learned in class. With the themes I expanded, connected, and found ways to improve the quality of my practice.
Mackenzie’s note: The children learned 16 of the unifying TAOL themes this semester, and we found it helpful to see the connections between them by having 4 Guiding themes, 4 Discovering themes, and 8 Applying themes. Our aim was to explore in order to empower our learning (as stated in the vision of TAOL Project), so this Independent Learner challenge was a critical test for us! We wanted to make sure that learning about learning wasn’t just interesting or something that we used to help our Tai Chi practice in class but that it also helped us find ways to improve our learning process on our own—no matter what we wanted to get better at.
SuperKid: This semester we were taught the themes by learning the stories of a man named Josh Waitzkin, a chess champion and Tai Chi Push-Hands winner and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt. But what inspired me most about Josh Waitzkin was his ability—his skill—of mastering how to learn. By learning about learning, he mastered three sports and is working hard on another. In a way, he is a real learner.
Mackenzie’s note: We read many passages from The Art of Learning over the semester. We also read 8 “Josh Stories,” illustrating each of the 8 Applying themes, that I wrote with younger readers in mind. In this way, Josh Waitzkin could be our role model, even though the students were a bit young overall for the book itself. By the end of the semester, though, several of the 12-year-old students became quite determined to read the complete book!
SuperKid: “But what is a real learner?” one might ask. “What is a student and what is a teacher?” A learner is a student who learns from himself and is a teacher who teaches himself. Also the best teacher and student is a learner.
Mackenzie’s note: All through the semester, we had an ongoing discussion about what is the role of a teacher, what is the role of a student, and what is the role of a learner. This was inspired by yet another quote from Josh Waitzkin: “And when there is no one to look in; no one to give feedback or cheer us on, a keen but relaxed focus will enable us to motivate and monitor ourselves.” That made a big impression on our SuperKids. They talked about how it was like you had to be your own teacher. During their independent Tai Chi practices in the second half of the semester, the children began to experience how important—and actually fun—it was for them to be “captains” of their own learning process. In these practices, we focused primarily on the four Discovering themes: All-In, Slow-Repeat, Inner-Compass, and Ever-New. (We gave TAOL themes more immediately descriptive names with easier words for kids, so these themes correspond to The Power of Presence, Making Smaller Circles, Intuition: Developing the internal compass, and Beginner’s Mind.)
SuperKid: My favorite themes by far were the Guiding theme Work-Together and the Applying theme No-Walls. Work-Together is everything. It is the parts of the whole and the whole of the parts. It is working All-In and the Basics-for-Everything. It is Ever-New and Respondable-Flow, and Slow-Repeat and Dig-in-Deep. It is all the themes in one. And No-Walls connects to it. No-Walls is connecting everything you learn, which, in a way, is Work-Together.
Mackenzie’s note: In class we had some great debates about how the themes were very interconnected. For example, Josh Waitzkin advised Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Champion Emily Kwok to remember this before her finals: “At my core, I am dynamic quality.” In many ways, one could see the 4 Guiding themes as perspectives to better understand that; the 4 Discovering themes as perspectives to better perceive it; and the 8 Applying themes as common—and often critical—scenarios in learning and life where we can tend to have a more stressed or fixed perspective so it’s really important to apply it!
If translated back into the original theme names, Anurag’s speech would be as follows:
SuperKid (translated into original theme names): My favorite themes by far were the Guiding theme Bringing It All Together and the Applying theme Breaking Down Walls. Bringing It All Together is everything. It is the parts of the whole and the whole of the parts. It is working with Power of Presence and Master the Fundamentals. It is Beginner’s Mind and The Soft Zone, and Making Smaller Circles and Learning Macro from Micro. It is all the themes in one. And Breaking Down Walls connects to it. Breaking Down Walls is connecting everything you learn, which, in a way, is Bringing It All Together.
SuperKid: All in all, I learned a lot about learning about learning that can help improve my learning. Next year I am planning to do this to try to work on other skills. This semester was very fun and interesting and was the perfect end to my SuperKid Tai Chi experience.
Mackenzie’s note: I’m so glad that we were able to have this semester together before SuperKid Anurag and his sister SuperKid Anushri moved to another state. For the past three years, they had learned Tai Chi with me twice a week, all through the academic year, from age 9 to age 12. If it weren’t for this semester’s focus on learning how to learn, I would feel some deep regrets about how much I hadn’t been able to teach them. But with TAOL themes, I feel that I was able share to with them the most important thing I could as a teacher: how they could be empowered learners—real learners. They are ready for their next learning adventure.
KAMPALA, UGANDA – Aleksandar Dimitrov spent three months working as a volunteer with Erasmus+ and the European Voluntary Service in conjunction with the Kawempe Youth Development Association Uganda. The project is designed to empower Ugandan youth through educational and vocational training and improvement of personal well-being with an aim to provide the students with the resources and skills necessary to better their living and employment situations for the long term.
One of Dimitrov’s volunteer responsibilities was to teach a business course to a group of Ugandan young women who had previously received vocational training in hairdressing and tailoring. He was eager to explore how The Art of Learning principles could support his students in deepening their understanding of business concepts and their drive to become life-long learners, as well as how to improve his own skills as a teacher. Dimitrov had his students work in groups in the interest of building community and to provide opportunities for the less outgoing students to participate in projects and discussions. Utilizing the principle of Listening First, he explored how each student approached the learning process and began to structure group makeup accordingly. By understanding student strengths he made a plan for how best to group them to bring out their knowledge and build upon their skill sets. He also found that by Listening First to his students, they would often assign themselves roles within the group that best fit their personal learning styles.
A long term goal Dimitrov held for his students was that they become curious and inspired learners with an ability to envision future scenarios. “This is a challenge,” Dimitrov explained “because there is a scarcity of basic needs such as food and housing, making it difficult to discuss and learn about some of the more complex educational and learning concepts.” Unemployment is a serious problem for young women in Kampala. Through the practice of envisioning a future in which they use their skills and vocational training, Dimitrov believes his students will develop an understanding of the possibilities for a future in which they are able to support themselves financially, and begin to develop a plan for how to do so. He is interested in further exploring the concept of Loving the Game to help his students build intrinsic motivation and to embrace learning challenges. “Painting the big picture is most important for me,” he explained, “This has to do with teaching these teenage girls to push themselves, not wait to be pushed to do the work they are best at.” As they begin to experience success with developing their business plans, he believes they will develop a love for the challenge itself, spurring them on toward a brighter and more sustainable future.
Dimitrov is in the process of creating a manual to be used by future volunteers in Uganda. He hopes that the practice of exploring The Art of Learning principles and helping the students deepen their passion for learning will extend well beyond his time with the organization.
Josh’s first stage of learning (Chapter 1: Innocent Moves) is turning his love for and natural curiosity towards chess into a disciplined art form. Josh talks about how his teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, helped him on the path to learning how to be more disciplined with his chess without suppressing his love for the game. Looking at my own journey of learning, I would say I’ve been stuck in this stage for most of life – struggling with turning my love of a topic into something I could practise with discipline. My chess equivalent would be dancing. I’ve loved it since I was 4 years old but I never took it as a serious discipline and failure to do so for dance has seeped into every other area of learning in my life.
When I read Josh’s book, it provided me an opportunity to reassess my process (or lack thereof!). I realised my approach to learning is that of a perpetual beginner. When I find something that peaks my interest, it becomes all consuming and I put all my attention and focus towards it up until the point where:
it gets too serious (is no longer fun),
I uncover something that turns me off the subject, or
there is a lot at stake to lose in continuing (mainly my ego)
and so I move my attention towards focusing on something else. This has happened enough times for me to recognise and notice the pattern and want to do something about it. Making that change has been an interesting path for me. I’m thankful for The Art of Learning, particularly the section on creating your own triggers, as this has been a huge saving grace for someone coming from a fixed mindset, who was so reliant on external triggers.
Josh’s learning journey is one of a growth mindset. I learned about the growth mindset 3 years ago. It’s one thing to know it, but it’s another thing to act on it and have it as part of your being. My biggest hurdle to following TAOL process was overcoming the brittle mind of a perfectionist; the talent-as-a-trait fixed mindset, that I developed growing up, starting with my dancing. I can’t tell you how many times I was told I had dance talent but I never knew what I was supposed to do with it because it’s supposed to be a thing that comes when needed, right? My mum told me she was regularly approached by other teachers offering more rigorous dance training to develop my talent. I was given the choice, and I chose safety and loyalty to my dance teacher because she gave me hugs and loved me more than the other students so I never took up the challenge. Perhaps if I was asked what my reasoning was this would have uncovered the underlying fear of the unknown, but alas, my decision, my consequence.
At the age of 13, I remember saying to my parents that I wanted to be a dance teacher when I grew up. I don’t know who answered me, all I remember is the answer itself, ‘that’s not a career, you can do so many other things’. Which wasn’t wrong of them either because I was also a bright (another fixed mindset word) student. Mirroring my approach in dancing, my discipline for studying was hit and miss. If the teacher at the time had a personality that I liked and made learning fun, or if I felt they took a liking to me, then I would perform really well because it became a game to impress them with my cleverness. I honestly don’t remember failing that much in primary school, but I do remember when the social consequences of winning came into play, which was close to the time that I started pulling back on my efforts in class. I found out that best friends got pretty sore at you and didn’t want to play when you performed better than them in class activities. So unless I particularly cared about the class, I started pulling back my efforts.
The social game became my subject of interest. I was fascinated by relationships and the connections we have with people, and this is what consumed my thoughts when I wasn’t formally studying subjects through school or university. Relationships were the one thing I truly cared about and mattered to me. This was my game. So when it came to competing and performing at university, or dancing, or a sport, instead of questioning my process when I failed, I just took it as ‘this is me. I just fail sometimes and that’s ok. Who cares about grades or winning when I have people who love me and I love them?’ You can probably see where this is going…what would happen if I experience failure in my relationships, the one thing that did matter to me? My mindset was not well-placed to handle this type of scenario.
The ‘who cares’ mentality is a dangerous place and can be one that mimics signs of depression. For me it came from moments when I knew I hadn’t done the work, I was put in the situation of needing to perform and I failed, or the outcome was not what I had expected. In those moments, my personal experience from a fixed mindset has been ‘disconnect and protect’. Why? Because the question that comes to mind ‘what is it about me that isn’t good enough’ is too confronting and soul destroying from a perspective of a brittle mind.
From talent-as-a-trait there is nowhere to budge and the mind becomes like glass. Before I was willing to break through it, I held onto any belief that made enough sense just to keep the glass intact. My process of moving past the fixed mindset was to break the glass – yes my mind- but this only happened because of something I cared very deeply about – the social game. Remember Josh’s story about the man in the Amazon jungle who went mad after he came face to face with a jaguar? This is what happened to me. I was so sure of myself and my social abilities until a jaguar (it’s equivalent) intercepted and I felt like I was fighting by the skin of my teeth just to stay alive. There is a scene in the movie Peaceful Warrior where the main character says “sometimes you have to lose your mind before you come to your senses”. By metaphorically breaking the glass and with it all sense of reality that I once knew, I had the opportunity to build myself up from scratch again. I threw away my old raison d’etre for a healthier one because the old mindset had failed me. Now I’m able to openly follow The Art of Learning as I’m no longer a victim of my environment. What excites me about this journey is building up pieces of my own life puzzle and instead of relying on other people to fill in the blanks for me, I’m creating the pieces by choosing to dive deeper into the activities that I love.
That brings me to where I am now along the learning path. I could give you a dreamer’s version, which tells you only the good stuff, but honestly, what I have to say about the Investment in Loss stage is that it’s really hard! All I am doing is making sure I show up continuously to my dance practice, giving my absolute best and tasking myself small challenges when I lack the external pressure to do so. I’ve been showing up earlier and doing more stretching. I’ve been smiling throughout the whole class even if I’m feeling hot and sweaty and tired. I’ve been extremely focused on my posture and hand movements. These very small and subtle tasks are not at all impressive, but somehow make a difference to disciplining my mind toward continuous learning. The hardest part has been acceptance of myself and where I am in comparison to where I want to be, and the amount of self-talk involved to make sure I don’t quit or give in because it ‘feels too hard’. For example, a couple of times I was stressed out from work and instead of opting out and taking the night off to relax, I showed up to my dance class. Doing so highlighted to me that the moments that are imperfect and not ideal are the moments for me to prove to myself that I am capable of more. Showing up when I haven’t felt like it has slowly taught me not to step down when things become overwhelming and feel too hard. In fact, Investment in Loss seems like a stage of a lot of self-talk. I have found that I have focused less on others around me and how they are thinking and feeling or what they are doing, and turned the spotlight onto myself, which has amplified the noise inside my mind. It doesn’t feel great to say the least. Here is hoping soon that I get to the stage of being able to calm my own mind by proving to myself time and time again that I’ve got this.