What is there to learn now, here, under maximum stress? (a problem for learning theory?)

Learning with others is, necessarily, a political matter. Thus my insistence on writing about “polities” of practice. Still, it remains that “learning” post participation risks being taken as a somewhat automatic process in the movement towards “fuller” (political) participation. Through participation one may move from apprentice to master but focusing, as we must, on movement does not tell us much about the everyday activities of the one who moves (or of the activities of those who encourage the movement—or put blocks on the way), and particularly about the activity of sorting out what to learn (what to prioritize, what to ignore, etc.).

I thought about this in the interstices of other activities I was not  able to escape these past weeks. I found myself, much against my will, and my hopes, in the position of apprentice to “next of kin” practices, first in in the neurological intensive care unit of New York/Presbyterian Hospital, and then in the regular neurological unit, and then in a rehabilitation center. At 70, it is the case that I have never been in that position, legitimately or otherwise, and that I have had much to learn even as I worried about much more than learning.

There were the not so trivial matters.  Where on earth is “177 Fort Washington Avenue”? Such an apparently non-deictic specification is altogether useless in New York City where major hospitals do not advertise their address on their majestic fronts! After one instance of re-directing instruction, I found myself having the figure out the security system, the floor, the location of switches to open doors, the “family waiting room” (including, later, its rhythms and accommodations to being told, or not, to wait there).

All this may appear minor as one learns with the help of instructing people who tell where one should (not) be (not) doing this or that, now but not necessarily then, along with meta-instructions about the range of possibilities for not triggering further instruction about (not) standing here or there, now and then, or the kind of apologies that might quiet criticism for messing around (and not give authorities the occasion to label one “confused” in a place and at moments specifically dedicated to identify, measure, and treat altogether real “confusion”).

Much less minor, when one first enters the emergency room, is the semi-circle of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, (and what else?), “explaining” (teaching?) emergency procedures and asking for various permissions and signatures. At that moment of highest stress, there is not much room for wondering what to learn. This, actually, may be just one of the moments when one must rely on previous learning with all its pre-judgements (aka “prejudices”) about what to do next (“trust the experts and sign whatever they place in front of you!”). At such a moment there is no time or occasion to review, analyze, discuss judgments that must be made right here, and right now—not after 10 minutes of consultation with family, friends, Google, etc.

And then, there is the wait…… Now one can review pre-judgements, wonder about possibilities (“did I tell them that …”), alternatives, paths that might open, one of which will have to be taken into a completely uncertain future. This is the time when one realizes that one does not know what, of all that one has learned earlier in life, is going to be useful and so must, once again, figure out, perhaps with trustworthy (or not) guidance, what one will have to learn—and whether it is to be needed only for the short term (I hope I am never on that hospital floor again), or for the longer term (new diets? limitations? handicaps and their mitigation? other hospitals for other diseases or conditions?).

And then, there is the matter of leaning about what one needs to learn about rehabilitation centers….

In the mean time, someplace between the trivial and the not so trivial given life in the 21st century, is the matter of figuring out how to get the Apple iPad to do what it is supposed to do.
I was convinced by a significant other that it would help the recovering body whittle away the time.  And so I bought my first Apple product.  As I expected, I found the iPad an irritation (though hopefully not for much longer). For someone raised on Vax VMS (who knows what that is?!) and Microsoft Windows, the pictograms at the bottom of the iPad were an initial mystery (as well as aesthetically challenging). Yes, it is a wonderful machine, but in what direction does how swipe, and when? What just happened to what I was looking at? Why doesn’t Siri take dictation (so that I could write this blog), or is it that I have not found how to get her to take dictation?

More importantly, it turns out, not too surprisingly, that the recovering body actually cannot handle the iPad.  It cannot hold the thing,  its fingers swipe, but not quite with the required dexterity.  So endless instructions: “do no put your finger here,” “you touched something at the bottom of the screen,” “you need to swipe twice from the bottom of the screen.” On and on the need for instruction arises, as well as for wondering whether to learn/teach this, and if so, what to learn/teach next.  Eventually, there is the matter of the will to take instruction, practice the instructions, discover new forms of ignorance.  Is there really a need to learn one more set of trivial matters? Perhaps there is.  But convincing the recovering body, or her most significant other, is no easy task.

Here again, for analysts concerned with the reality that the world, whether man-made or not, is not an open book, the issue to investigate should not be what or how people “learn” (and teach).  The issue should be the work that people perform as they figure out what to learn/teach, and as always, who might help/hinder that search: child, trial and error, warning message, instructions from some programmer who imagined that this might require instruction (but not that)???

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