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Unconscious and Uncomfortable Learning

alesnick's picture

 by Catherine Curry

Learning goes beyond its traditional meaning - learning happens also when the mentor find itself in an uncomfortable or confusing situation. The author draws on persona experience from Bryn Mawr's Praxis program.


In the process of learning to be an educator, the importance of being a learner is both obvious and inescapable.  Without being open minded and willing to gain new knowledge and understanding becoming an effective teacher is difficult, possibly impossible.  Bryn Mawr College's Praxis program is an invaluable part of this educative process.  It provides students with the chance to work in a classroom environment and gain hands on knowledge about teaching.  However, the challenge becomes striking the near impossible balance between asking for help and trying to learn without feeling like a burden or invaluable part of the process.  As participants in the Praxis program the goal is to learn through action by being an active observer, participant, or member of the classroom/learning environment.  There are many ways to create space and attempt to ask questions without altering the relationship between the student and staff member.  However, what is most important and perhaps most difficult as a student in the Praxis program is to accept the idea of unconscious learning and recognize that sometimes the discomfort and frustration in the classroom result in the greatest tools a teacher can have.

The reality is that all too often teachers are not given proper training and tools.  Theoretically students are prepared to deal with any situation but the reality of a classroom can be drastically different than the pages of a book.  This preparation takes the form of theoretical knowledge, of planned activities, and an arsenal of techniques that may or may not work in the reality of the classroom.  No matter how many times students read the words of John Dewey or Freire there will always be situations that are simply unpredictable:  "...very little practical advice is offered to teachers."[1]  This is one of the reasons that the Praxis program is essential to the education program. 

The Praxis experience is one that demands flexibility and demands an open mind.  One of the most challenging aspects of these classes is the challenge of being a learner and being a teacher, of feeling comfortable asking question and expressing insecurities without feeling inferior or insecure.  Feeling comfortable enough to ask these questions is critical as questions provide students with the greatest opportunity to learn and grow:  "We mean that all learners, both students and mentors, best serve their curiosity by continuing to become informed about what they want to know and about what they believe most deeply they already know."[2]  Curiosity and insecurity can be positives;, they allow students to grow and change.  However, what becomes challenging is knowing when to express these questions and how to express them without becoming a distraction.  For example, while working in an ESL program with adult learners I was asked to teach a class using a few newspapers.  I was given no further instructions and immediately was overwhelmed with nerves.  I told the women to each take a paper and being to read the caption of a photograph.  I then left the room and found one of the teachers in charge.  Seeing that she was not busy I asked for a few clarifying details and returned to my teaching post reassured.  This was an opportunity for learning that was comfortable and appropriate. 

Creating an environment that is comfortable and open is critical in the Praxis program.  The right kind of relationship with the Praxis location and staff can provide the opportunity for extensive communication and learning.  Often there is more than one person at the Praxis placement who can help answer questions and be a mentor through the process.  Finding a time before of after a class or mentoring/tutoring process beings can be a time to ask questions or talk about the need to ask questions.  Letting people know in a more private setting that questions have been arising and you are not necessarily comfortable disrupting class to ask them.  Some teachers and advisors will say that the student should feel comfortable asking questions.  Others will set aside time at the beginning or end of the day for questions.

Limited resources and limited time can mean that program instructors do not have the time to work with student volunteers:  "As illustrated in this chapter's narrative of a newcomer's adjustment to the unfamiliar social role of teacher, most of what is going on is indirect, nonconscious, and even accidental."[3] This idea of unconscious learning is powerful, however, it is also frightening and uncomfortable. The struggle is becoming comfortable with this insecurity, embracing a lack of knowledge and understanding and allowing this to shape the Praxis experience.  In my own placement I encounter frustration and fear almost every day.  I sat down to teach the women about verbs in the past tense and was met with frustration and fear.  While I had the practical knowledge needed to teach the material I did not know how to make these lessons that seemed so intrinsic to me accessible to non-English speakers.  There was no one for me to talk to and I had no choice but to struggle through the lessons and teach the women as best I could.  At the end of the lesson I realized that the women around me understood these verbs and the different rules associated with them.  Unknowingly I had stumbled upon a method of teaching that was helpful and effective. It was a day of unconscious learning and for part of the day I was frustrated and challenged but at the end of the day I felt satisfied and empowered.

 However, there are situations where the insecurity crosses a line and becomes preventative. What agency does the student volunteer have in this situation and how do they gain the level of security necessary to perform what is asked of them? There have been moments when I have felt completely unprepared in a Praxis situation.  I have been overwhelmed and my fear has made it difficult for me to teach.  However, what I have learned is that even in these overwhelming moments I can gain knew knowledge.  Sometimes my fear does prevent me from teaching to the best of my ability; however, I can never let it prevent me from trying to teach.  On my most recent visit to my placement I did a speaking activity with the women using the stories of recent immigrants.  I struggled because the women I was working with did not understand the reading and there were a lot of awkward pauses. I felt like I had taught them nothing, I was discouraged and frustrated.  At the end of the day one of the students stopped and told me thank you, she said she really enjoyed our day.  Even though I failed to appreciate my own learning and thought I was failing as a teacher there was unconscious learning and my knowledge gerw through this process. This is a powerful lesson for students in the Praxis program.  Despite frustration and fear students must push through the discomfort and struggle to teach because even in these moments learning occurs.

In many ways it becomes clear that the role of a teacher can be overwhelming and frightening and that sometimes there are no questions to be asked.  Instead students are left with the difficult task of accepting a role that is neither concrete or easily understood.  There are some steps that can be taken to prevent this discomfort but they are limited and will not work in every Praxis situation.  Students must adjust to the idea that in this program they will often be insecure and feel confused.  Accepting this insecurity and not allowing it to overwhelm the student is necessary.  Each time the student attends the Praxis location learning happens no matter how frustrating and slow it may seem there is learning.  Engaging Minds and From Teaching to Mentoring both write about the unconscious leaning that occurs in teaching, and this is what students have to keep in the back of their mind every time they walk into the sometimes-frightening Praxis situation.  Each time I leave my placement I look back on the morning and reflect on how much I learn from the women, my students and from working with them.  Many times I leave after being frustrated and confused for two long hours only to reflect on those hours and see a new wealth of knowledge and experience.


[1] Davis, Brent, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler.  Engaging Minds. Routledge Taylor and Francis Group: New York, NY, 2008. p. 169

[2] Herman, Lee and Alan Mandell.  From Teaching to Mentoring.  Routledge Taylor and Francis Group: New York, NY, 2004. p. 11.

[3] Davis, 169.


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