Learning the Hard Way

Blindness made everything harder except hitting my thumb with  a hammer.  Nothing came easy.  Tasks I used to skate through were now frustrating and burdensome.  This steepening learning curve seemed inevitable and unredeemable.  In every way, blindness took on the mantle of disadvantage.  Then I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Theory on Desirable Difficulties and  had a 100-watt epiphany.

Start with the day a researcher posed three story problems to Princeton University undergraduates. The problems were tough and the students scored 1.9 out of a possible 3.0 correct.  The researcher then submitted to another group the same three questions written in a very difficult to read font.  One might expect the scores to decrease because the task was more difficult.  In fact, the scores increased significantly, to 2.5 correct out of three.  The researcher concluded that a difficult presentation “causes people to think more deeply about whatever they come across.  They’ll use more resources on it.  They’ll process more deeply or think more carefully about what’s going on.”

Can you see how huge this concept is for blind people?  With blindness making life harder, I have had to learn to compensate for something that was taken away from me.  Whether in spite of (as if by sheer will) or because of my disability, I have learned things in this struggle which prove to be of enormous advantage.

I have become a good listener.  Listening requires that I sit still and attend to the present moment.  Listening is the primary way I learn.

I have practiced to develop a better memory.  I focus on what people say, the words they use.  I concentrate.  I commit things to memory.  Memorization and recall are learnable skills.

I learn from my remaining senses how to construct a model of my environment richer in detail than the impressions of a casual observer.  I benefit whether what I’ve learned serves me by knowing how to cross a busy intersection or reconstruct a scene in a story.

This method of learning, what Gladwell calls “compensation learning” I find exhausting.  More time, more effort, more frustration.  But I am better off for making the effort, taking the risks.  Gladwell concludes that, “What is learned out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than learning that comes easily.”  And easy it is not.  But, what choice is there, really?

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4 Responses to Learning the Hard Way

  1. Reblogged this on The Chicago Dream and commented:
    I could not have said it better myself about blindness. This post should be shared widely!

  2. Heather Morrison says:

    Food for thought. True about other challenging illnesses too. Thanks

  3. bethfinke says:

    Well, there *is* a choice, actually. You could give up. Sure glad you haven’t, Jeff –we all benefit from the things you learn, and the things you share. Thanks for the GREAT post.


  4. Amy Crawford says:

    Reading your blog is a wonderful way for me to continue to reap the benefits of your mentoring. Thank you, Jeff!

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