Three years ago, I slipped into Tim Ferriss’s SXSWedu keynote “The Secrets of Accelerated Learning and Mastery” and found myself nodding along his every word. His point: Learning how to learn is the No. 1 skill students need to succeed.
It’s obvious that the pandemic has made learning more urgent — for everyone. Just consider this April 17 headline on NBC News: “During the coronavirus pandemic, doctors forced to learn lessons on the fly”— including the high emotional toll and how unprepared the healthcare system was. In education, teachers have been quickly creating remote-learning curricula for students, parents are learning to be teachers, and on it goes.
Given the existential challenges we now face, how do we continually motivate ourselves to keep learning and growing? As I learn to cook, relearn how to play piano, and help my nieces learn to read, I keep coming back to three movies that showcase the transformative effect of the learning process — inextricably linked to bighearted teaching.
Searching for Bobby Fischer. When child prodigy Josh Waitzkin showed talent playing chess in New York City’s Washington Square Park, Josh’s parents hired chess master and teacher Bruce Pandolfini to hone their son’s skill. Chess was no longer just fun as Bruce taught Josh how to think like a champion player. Early on, Bruce cleared the pieces off the chessboard, so Josh could visualize how the pieces could move. “Don’t move until you see it,” his teacher would say. Later, knowing the board so well allowed Josh to see 12 moves ahead in a pivotal competition — and rise to the top.
Key takeaway for me: Love coupled with discipline leads to mastery.
The Sound of Music. After nun-turned-governess Maria discovered that the Von Trapp children didn’t know any songs or even how to sing, she used her guitar to teach them the musical scale: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do, and corresponding phrases to aid memory, e.g., Re, a drop of golden sun. Right away, the seven children excitedly belted out each note. After they mastered the scale, one of the children wondered, “But it doesn’t mean anything.”
“So we put in words,” she replied. “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, and so on are only the tools we use to build a song; once you have these notes in your heads, you can sing a million different tunes, by mixing them up like this,” she said, then sang a new tune: “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.”
It wasn’t long before the children were joyfully singing — for everyone in Salzburg.
Key takeaways for me: Nail the fundamentals, cherish the skill, and see it flow.
The Miracle Worker is perhaps the most visceral example of successful teaching and learning I’ve seen on screen. Helen Keller’s tutor Anne Sullivan had to figure out how to get through to young Helen, blind and deaf and, at the time, a wild child. While teaching Helen to finger-spell with American Sign Language, Anne realized Helen saw it as a game and failed to grasp that every word she was spelling had a meaning behind it. Anne understood that if she could help Helen connect one word to its object through repetition, the world would open up. Sure enough, Anne was right — that word was water.
Key takeaways for me: Learning isn’t linear, and selfless teaching makes everything possible.