Learning to ride horses and becoming a student again has been an interesting experience. Each week, I get to see things from the viewpoint of a learner (often, a struggling learner!).
Growing up, I had a pony named Taffy. I rode her bareback, bitless and fearless. I learned early on to grip with my legs, because it was a survival skill—you grip or you fall off. Taffy was headstrong, too, and I was only eight years old and I’d never had a lesson. If Taffy got it into her head to make a run for the stables, all I could do was grab a handful of mane, grip with my short legs, and hang on tight.
Fast forward thirty-five years, and I had my first lesson at an English riding barn on a young Paint named Rhythm. The first time I sat in the saddle, my natural inclination—my ingrained habit after riding Taffy bareback as a child—was to lean slightly forward, gripping Rhythm with my legs.
Well, to Rhythm, being squeezed meant “Take off!”—and so she did. My trainer has nerves of steel, and she calmly talked me through the process of sitting back in the saddle with my legs hanging down loosely. Fortunately for me, my trainer is also quite patient, because she has had to remind me for two years to sit back in the saddle.
On the other hand, my son learned to ride in his late teens, and he didn’t have any habits to “unlearn.” He was like a blank slate, and he learned how to do everything correctly right from the beginning. He didn’t have to fight ingrained habits.
What does this story have to do with teaching? Well, think about a student who has been spelling a word incorrectly for some time as compared to a student who has never spelled the word before the lesson.
It’s natural and normal for someone with an ingrained habit to struggle to “unlearn” what he’s always done and “relearn” a new way of writing that misspelled word. It’s also natural for the student who has never written the word to capture correct spelling more easily.
As for me and my ingrained habits…well, I think I finally licked the habit of leaning forward in the saddle! Determination—and a good partnership with my new horse, Kjarkur –have got me finally sitting back, relaxed.
How about you—have you ever had a hard time “unlearning” a habit?