While standing in driving rain while waiting to cheer for my daughter’s high school crew team, I had a surprising conversation with one of her coaches—a discussion related to the changing nature of learning.
The first surprise came when the coach disclosed that she was a full-time medical student at a prestigious university. Having heard how demanding medical school is, and knowing how time-intensive crew training is, I was dumbstruck that anyone could juggle both of these activities. Surprise number two came when she began talking about her “Katie,” a freshman in high school. It seemed impossible for this young med student to have a 15-year-old daughter. As it turned out, Katie is an economically disadvantaged young woman from an emerging country. The coach had been befriended by Katie’s family years before when she was living abroad. Now that the coach had the means to do so, she was helping her “little sister” live in an environment where she could obtain a quality education.
As the wind blew harder, and I became wetter and colder (what a great spectator sport crew is), I asked her how she did it. She explained that while the coaching did require a significant time commitment, she loved it. She had rowed on an elite women’s crew team during her undergraduate years and found that it completely refreshed her and took her mind off her studies. She said that it made her study time more efficient and effective. She felt the same about her little sister. She felt privileged to help her get started in life, and it gave her energy to be able to lend a hand. The time demands it created were more than compensated for by the benefits of a rewarding and fulfilling relationship. It helped both with her learning and her preparation for work in a helping profession.
Clearly the coach is a wonderful, talented person, but her story also has much to do with learning strategy. A break in routine is one of the most effective ways to increase the efficiency of learning and performance. In “The Power of Full Engagement,” Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz wrote about research and practices that demonstrate increased performance levels of people who consciously oscillate between serious work and intermittent play. In a society that seems to value only work, it requires a strong sense of security to stop working and engage other parts of the brain, but the benefits of doing so pay significant dividends. The fact that the coach extended herself to be of service also is consistent with good learning strategy. As David Morrison, Ph.D., and others have pointed out, effective human beings adaptively worry about something more important than their own problems. This breaks the back of the vicious cycle that ensues when one worries about performance, which impedes performance, which causes increased worry about the decreasing performance.
The final surprise came when I asked her how many hours she spent in class. “Most weeks I don’t go to class,” she said. At first, I thought that she meant she was a resident or in the practicum portion of medical school. Actually, she is in her second year. She went on to explain that attending lectures is optional and that many students choose not to attend. She found it more efficient to just read the books several times. She went on to say that there are no grades—it is a pass/fail system. The only way to really fail is to fail the board exams, which are the only exams that count. If a student can prepare for the boards in a fraction of the conventional time, it is perfectly OK. She explained that the medical schools found that unhealthy competition over grades arose from the former system. Under the new system, students were much more likely to help each other.
The coach had significantly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of her learning experience by taking revitalizing breaks, extending herself to help others, building fulfilling relationships and choosing an unconventional learning strategy that was well-suited to her learning style. She also benefited from a system that simultaneously encouraged independent and collaborative education. And, she just passed the second-year medical boards.
As the sun broke through the clouds and my daughter’s boat came into view, I realized I had just received an education about education from a remarkable student. It’s no wonder her sweatshirt read: You Row Girl!
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company, and has held numerous international leadership roles with IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and Motorola. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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