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Positive Psychology in Learning

Unintentional alliteration aside, I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while but didn’t quite know what to say.

Before we go on, I invite you to watch this video. No, really, watch it.

Read more about positive psychology here

Breaking up the learning process

One of the things that so appeals to me about object manipulation disciplines in general is the progressive nature of the learning process. Any form of object manipulation demonstrates this but juggling is the one where people see improvement the most steadily. My learning experience of juggling went like this:

  • I picked up a single ball and learned to throw and catch it.
  • I picked up a second ball and learned to throw the two in a basic cascade pattern.
  • I threw both wildly off-target and dropped both because the action was unfamiliar.
  • I focused on catching one and the other fell about 3 feet off target.
  • I persevered and after a few minutes, I could reliably throw and catch both balls with fair precision.

At each step, I felt that I was making real, tangible progress toward my end goal. This is a key point in making the learning process that much less frustrating.

I’ve seen this phenomenon cropping up countless times among people trying to learn an object manipulation discipline for the first time. Our brains are conditioned by society at large to continually push the boundaries of success further and further in a bid to ‘continually strive for better’. As we’re naturally primed to work towards an ‘end goal’, we rarely see the intervening steps as smaller targets in themselves, which hampers learning in the long run by setting yourself up to only be satisfied once you’ve reached your ‘end goal’.

Learning to be happy about progress instead of results

We’ve seen how we’re sometimes our own worst enemy when it comes to learning a new skill. Now let’s look at how we can reverse that trend.

I’m going to use object manipulation as a reference point because I’ve seen these patterns recur both in others and in my own head.

When I teach poi, I strongly encourage people to break a move they’re working on into smaller and smaller chunks until they can easily do a fragment of it. The tendency among beginners to go ‘for the finish’ is often so deeply ingrained they don’t realise it. The next phase of the process is to learn to recognise when you’ve got the fragment ‘down’. This is an utterly crucial skill. Without it, it’s much harder to recognise success.

Learning antispin flowers is a good illustration of this in practice.

Antispin is very counter-intuitive at the start. It feels very unnatural to move your arm in the opposite direction to the spin of your poi. Learning a flower pattern is even harder because it strings together several antispin ‘petals’ which is very hard to do if you aren’t used to the feel of it. Many try to learn an antispin pattern in one go. To help counter this, I like to get people to become comfortable with a single antispin petal first. By extension, it gets them used to the feeling of antispin in general.

Then, as soon as I see that they’re getting it, I point it out to them! Even if it’s not very controlled and off-plane, it’s still a win! Often, we get so caught up in what we’re doing that we fail to notice when we’ve succeeded!


This is what your brain feels like when you recognise success
Two things happen when you are happy: your system gets flooded with serotonin, and dopamine. I’m simplifying here – I’m aware that there is a lot more that happens. Serotonin and dopamine both reinforce the happiness and that in and of itself is great, but there is another wonderful side effect:

Dopamine fires up your brain’s learning centres. When you are happy, you learn much faster and more effectively as your brain’s learning centres are awake, switched on and ready to process, store and contextualise new information.

As you can see, this rapidly turns into a positive feedback loop! This means that *the more you can spot the little successes, the more of your brain will suddenly light up, shake the dust and make itself available for new information! *

Looking back

How many times have you looked at someone who is very good at what they do and thought to yourself: “Wow, that’s amazing; I wish I could do that!”. I do it on a regular basis at Spinning @ because there are so many ridiculously talented folks there. Now pause and think for a second. Imagine yourself when you started learning coming face-to-face with you now and how they’d see you. Try to realise that in many respects, you are the juggler/spinner/performer that inspired you 6 months ago.

No matter how subjectively little you feel you’ve progressed, that progress is real and tangible and if you look back you’ll see the steps that lead you here. Remember that at each step you achieved something and your brain has had to alter its structure a tiny bit to accommodate the new skillset or information or muscle memory.

Hope some of this stuff helped!