What does learning look like? Part I – Kathy Jackson

From our very first contact with our students to the last, we should work to give them an understanding of what learning looks like. This is crucial for helping students keep going when things seem tough. After all, to a lot of people, learning looks like failure – because by definition, the student who is learning is the one who has not already reached their goal. They’re still in process.

To help students forgive themselves for being in process, we should tell them how that process looks and explain how it can help them reach their goals. Knowing what learning looks like can be useful for us as instructors, because once we know what it looks like when our students are learning, we find it much easier to tell whether they actually are. This helps us do our jobs better, and allows us to spot-check the quality of our work throughout the day.

The type of learning that we see happening can also give us some clues for how each student needs to be coached for best improvement. A frustrated learner on the edge of an “aha!” moment may need only a word of encouragement or a suggestion to try a slight shift in strategy on the existing task, while someone who is advancing slowly may need a higher bar or a fresh challenge. There’s also a significant difference between coaching someone who has had no prior experience (and who therefore can be expected to make giant leaps in skill with relatively little effort), and coaching someone who has had a great deal of experience (whose improvements will be more incremental and often require much more effort). Knowing what to expect at different points in the learning process can help us coach our students more effectively.

So, what does learning look like?

It doesn’t take much detective work to catch the first type of learning. It’s the one learning phase that nearly everyone has experienced, and the one we most commonly expect to see and feel for ourselves when we are in the learner’s role. It is not, however, the only type of learning there is.

Learning looks like a sudden wild jump forward with almost no effort. Or sometimes, a series of wild jumps forward with very little effort. This one’s probably the most fun and it’s definitely the easiest to spot. Think of the brand-new beginner who has literally never held a handgun before. At first the shooter is tentative, maybe a little nervous. He’s wondering whether he really wants to do this thing after all. He can’t quite figure out where to put his hands and he’s not sure how the mechanics of the gun might work. But you let him know that it’s normal to feel that way and that there’s no pressure. As long as he stays safe, he can do whatever he likes and nobody will think worse of him for it. Then you show him how to hold the gun and describe how to line up the sights. He presses the trigger for the first time and turns around with a huge grin on his face. He says, “This is fun!” And so it is. A few minutes later, with just a little coaching about trigger use, he’s slowly but happily putting all his shots into a 5-inch circle at 5 yards. Smiles all around.

Just before this type of learning really starts, while the student is still a bit worried or nervous, we as coaches may need to provide reassurance and a little encouragement. But once students find their courage and are willing to try, all we really need to do is suggest what they should do and then mirror their enthusiasm while they do it. They will do the rest.

This happy, almost effortless turn of events provides a lot of reward for just a little work. It does take some effort, but the payoff in pleasure far outweighs the energy we put into it. With such a predictably high return on investment, this early part of the learning process feels so good that people easily get addicted to it. That’s why many people bounce from fresh new hobby to fresh new hobby, never really becoming the master of any one thing.

Some people expect learning to look like this at every step along the way. When it doesn’t, they falter and fumble, think themselves incompetent or incapable or unsuited for the task. They’re tempted to give up as soon as the going gets tough – not because they don’t have it in them to succeed, but because they think they don’t. Or because nobody has ever shown them what it might take for them to reach success. They don’t know what other types of learning look like. They might even believe that anything less than immediate, effortless success means they are “bad at” the task they are trying to learn, and thus there’s no point in trying.

These folks need to know that not all accomplishment comes without cost, and that it’s normal to struggle a little bit along the way to higher achievement. They need to know that learning sometimes looks more like hard, steady effort for relatively small gains.

Learning looks like hard work for small improvements. After the first big burst of progress, the learning process may look like a series of small steps forward that come only with effort. Unlike that first wild jump, later learning tends to take more work and provide less reward for the amount of energy the learner puts into it. To be more accurate, maybe we can say that the bulk of the student’s work changes from making an effort of will (“Do I really want to learn how to shoot this thing?”) into making an effort of skill (“What physical behavior do I need to change in order to reach my performance goal?”). As students progress in their abilities, the learning slope gets a little steeper and each improvement takes a little more work.

Consider the intermediate student who has a measurable goal: she wants to draw from concealment and get a good hit on a handprint-sized zone in the upper center chest at seven yards in less than two seconds. And she wants to do this reliably, every single time she tries it, all day long.

To reach this goal, the student first needs a solid dose of good instruction. What does an efficient drawstroke look like? What elements does she need to include for safety? How should she clear her cover garments? She needs information, so you provide that information and give her a good model to follow. But that’s only the beginning of her process. Now she needs to try it for herself. At first she moves slowly, making sure she has the broad outlines of the drawstroke, making sure she can get the good hits she’s after, making sure each of the elements is in place as she thinks her way through the entire procedure. You watch and make sure her practice stays clean, her technique correct, so she doesn’t engrain bad habits. Where can she eliminate wasted motion? How can she fix the mistakes that lead to added time or missed shots? You work to help her find those elements and correct them.

As she works, you’ll soon notice a pattern in her efforts.

One example of such a pattern: you might see that when she concentrates on one element of this complex skill set, other elements slip away from her. When she concentrates on bringing the gun quickly out to the target, for example, she might fail to see any part of the sights or fail to press the trigger properly. When she thinks about her trigger press and sight alignment, she moves too slowly out to target. She’s having a hard time keeping all the elements in their proper place and balance.

Or you might notice that when your student concentrates on one thing, she actually gets clumsier or slower at doing that one thing. For example, we sometimes see this happen if we spend too much time telling students how to move instead of simply telling them that they need to move. They slow down because they can’t figure out which foot to move next. The more extreme version of this can even spread to other elements. When the student thinks too much about her feet, for example, she slows down and also loses track of her muzzle direction.

Or you might notice that when your student concentrates on one element of the skill, that element improves and several other elements also fall quite nicely into place without her paying direct attention to them. We see this happen sometimes when we tell a student to concentrate on getting a good, solid firing grip on the gun while it is still in the holster, which often preps them to move smoothly throughout the remainder of the draw. Call this the golden move for instructors: finding the element that, when the student concentrates on it, actually improves not just itself but also the other elements around it.

As you watch your student work any complex skill with multiple elements, you might notice these patterns, or any of several other patterns of improvement you can work with. Each one should lead to a different emphasis in your coaching. In this sense, your skill as a coach will be directly related to your skill as an observer.

The challenge for your student is that she will need to perform many different elements in the right way and in the right order before she can reach her overall goal. This is another place where your skill as a coach comes into play. You must decide which errors you should draw to your student’s attention right away, which errors you will address later, and (because life is not perfect and you have a limited time with each student) which errors you must leave for her to work out on her own during later practice.

Think of the process you use to decide which errors to correct immediately as something like medical triage:

  • Safety Errors. Some errors (particularly those related to safety) would be catastrophic if left uncorrected. These you must address at once no matter what else is going on.
  • Critical Errors. Some errors (such as failing to press the trigger correctly) will very likely stop her from reaching her goal, regardless of what else she is doing right. Correct these more significant errors one at a time, as soon as you reasonably can, because they are a decisive factor in her success.
  • Non-Critical Errors. Some errors may affect her efficiency or consistency, without having a strong impact on her ability to reach the immediate goal. You may choose to set these errors aside to work on at a later time, or start tackling them one by one after the more significant errors are fixed.

Your decision to temporarily disregard minor errors frees your student to focus on the factors that keep her safe, and to make changes that will have the biggest impact on her shooting development. After she has corrected (or at least learned how to correct) the big-picture errors, you can shift your own focus to help your student identify the smaller issues that she should work on.  

As a rule, good coaches suggest that students change only one thing at a time. There is one exception: if your student is doing two things that are unsafe, you must address both of those things immediately. For example, if she is pointing the gun at her leg with her finger on the trigger, it is not enough to tell her only to point the gun elsewhere, or only keep her finger off the trigger. Even if changing two things at once confuses her, she cannot safely work on anything else until she takes care of both these problems. She must make both of the needed changes even if changing two things at once confuses her. You cannot allow her to fix one thing while ignoring the other, because that would be unsafe. And this is true no matter what other new ideas she’s trying to process.  

If you see or even suspect that correcting the safety issues in tandem will not get your student to a place where she can work without posing a risk to herself or others, do not allow her to work with a functional gun. Instead, have her learn the skills with a dummy gun, or some other type of gun-shaped object that could never under any circumstances launch a bullet. Allow her to use a working firearm only after she has used the non-functional one to smooth away her confusion and her existing bad habits. Then make sure she also gets a few dry runs with the real gun before loading it for live-fire work.

Safety factors aside, suggest only one change at a time for students who are in the incremental phase of learning. Make sure your students get enough repetitions to see how each change improves their performance before you suggest the next one.

When making many small improvements toward a big goal, students often feel discouraged because it often feels as though nothing is changing at all, or as though things are not changing quickly enough. The student can feel like she’s driving along an endless highway, with the high mountains of her goal far off in the distance and seeming never to get closer no matter how many miles pass under the wheels. To work around this, try giving the student a series of smaller goals that she can reach more easily. As she reaches each small milestone, she can see and feel that she’s still making progress toward the larger one. The smaller goals function just as the mile markers along a highway let a driver know she is drawing closer to mountains that are so far in the distance that the scenery barely shifts as she drives.

For example, if the student’s eventual goal is to make that two-second draw from concealment with a good handprint-sized group at seven yards, you may want to start out with a three-second par time. Or you may try moving the target a little closer – five yards rather than seven. You can increase the difficulty once your student has met the easier standard.

Be sure to help your student celebrate each milestone before you drive on to the next. Few things are more discouraging than to conquer a challenge that we find difficult, only to have someone else imply that it wasn’t much of a challenge and not worth paying any attention to because there’s still more work to do. So acknowledge, even celebrate, each milestone along the way. In this way you can keep your student engaged and working hard to improve even when she might feel discouraged about her progress toward the overall goal.

“Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” – popular video game

This series of small, measurable improvements toward a larger goal definitely looks like learning from our perspective. But it’s not the only thing we might see while our students are learning.

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