The Power of Immersion

Before I start, as a disclaimer, I would like to mention that I am a firm believer in the many different ways we learn and how each of us has a preferred learning style.

I realise that I am out of step with contemporary thought that suggests that this has little impact on the effectiveness of learning, but, from my own experience, it is not something to be discounted entirely.

I will also say that I am a firm believer, too, that, thank goodness, people will learn despite their teachers – and I say this with great love for many teachers (and, in fact, I was a teacher for close to thirty years and only stopped doing it as my day job recently) – if they want to.

My own experience is thus: if you expect me to sit and listen to you (lecture style) I will be off daydreaming from everything about the colour of the walls to what’s for dinner to the next scene in the story that is currently playing in my head (note: this is where secondary education fell apart big time for me, because this is what most teachers at my high school expected us to do).

Put a pen in my hand and let me scribble down what you are saying and you have a better chance of me ‘hearing’ what you want me to hear. Let me read your words and experiment and you are onto a winner. Don’t show me. Don’t expect me to learn from watching you (unless I can follow along as you are showing).

Write it down. Let me play.

I cannot listen to podcasts. I want to, I really do. There are some totally brilliant podcasts out there, but I have to have the time to sit and write down what the podcasters are talking about in order for it not to be a total waste of time. I even tried arting while listening to podcasts, but it didn’t work. I tried putting on podcasts while I did the housework. Nope. While driving. Definitely nope. Plus I like listening to music as I drive. Classical by preference.

I love it when podcasters include transcripts – I can read through and highlight the interesting bits in a fraction of the time it takes to listen (and write things down – which actually requires me to pause the podcast sometimes to make sure I get exactly what the speaker said down perfectly).

That said, however, there are a couple of podcasters whose voices I adore listening to so much, or who share oodles of such amazing content, that sometimes I do go to the trouble of making time to just sit and scribble as they talk. But it is a time thing. While other people can listen while they do other things, I have to give the podcast/lecturer/speaker my full attention. Or it is a waste of time.

Just so’s you know, too, I like short, sharp vlogs that I often play at 1.25 speed (but still pause to write out salient points exactly) – and I will start to wriggle and squirm during long, drawn out webinars. Hence I prefer recorded sessions so that I can pause and jump in and out of as necessary, and, yes, I’m probably ADHD…

As for learning despite our teachers, my first experience of this was a maths teacher who could be distracted oh-so-easily by our class from the purpose at hand to lecturing about manners, but I got through maths by reading the maths book when I got home and working out what I was supposed to be doing –

It looks beautiful, but what does it mean?!

unfortunately I didn’t enjoy high school maths so it went a bit by the wayside until Y12 when I suddenly realised I had to get a good grade in maths for the points I needed for university entry and taught myself (with a little bit of help from my gifted mathematician of an older brother) the entire Y11/12 curriculum between the results of the trial HSC (27%) coming out and sitting the actual HSC (91% – although I answered the last two questions using physics formulas)!

I also taught myself the Y12 Modern History curriculum, mostly by avoiding attending class and doing a heap of reading in the library. It was either that or sit and listen to the teacher discuss cricket with the boys.

Ah, yes, the 'Opening of Japan' -

yup, that was really what that unit was called

- sounds like the unboxing of a beautiful present

Luckily my Ancient History teacher was the most brilliant teacher in the whole damn – whoops, that should have been a [deleted] – school and taught me so much more about learning than anyone, and I was able to transfer skills across from A to B.

I want to stress that I was a terrible student at high school and did not get good scores. I was unhappy, and only actually finished because I wasn’t going to let the [deleted] beat me.

I’d be surprised if any of the teachers (except for maybe my Ancient History teacher and perhaps my Physics teacher) actually remember(ed) me.

I did, however, have my choice of universities, being accepted into all to which I applied.

I chose ANU (The Australian National University in Canberra) where my first assignment in history was failed by a visiting tutor from Oxford who simply wrote See me on my returned paper (this was in the olden days before computers were invented - in fact, we weren't even allowed to type our essays because, obviously, this lent itself to more easily plagiarising things, apparently). I saw her and she said it was probably a credit but she thought I could do a better job and I had a week to resubmit and that I was at university now and needed to get my act together.

Over the next week I immersed myself in that paper – yes, you were wondering when I was going to get around to that, weren’t you? – and I aced the paper with a High Distinction.

In a happily-ever-after story, that would have been the turning point of my academic career and I would have taken out the university medal and gone onto higher things. Um. No. I did okay, especially in the subjects that I loved (Medieval Studies, the English units that I chose on long dead writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and, oh, yes, and whoever it was that wrote Beowulf, and Archaeology), and not so much in History (which was all political [deleted]) or French – although I do still want to learn French one day. But... not like that.

But I learned about the power of immersion.

Remember how I learned the entire Y11/12 2 unit maths curriculum over a few short weeks? I wasn’t interested in maths, but I did want the precious points. I immersed myself in maths and came out the other end knowing some stuff (not actually necessarily understanding it, mind).

And – for my Oxford tutor – I immersed myself in a whole library load of books and papers and maps and biographies and took on board the university requirements for how information was cited and bibliographies were annotated (different to high school – who would have thought?). It was thanks to this tutor – who sadly returned to Oxford in the middle of the year having successfully made me angry by failing me in the subject I thought I had a handle on and subsequently making sure I didn't fail again – that I realised what I could do if I applied myself appropriately (and recognised what I had done at school to drag myself through by my bootlaces).

Since then, I have immersed myself in whatever I have wanted to find out about. I soak up learning, hoard the bits I think are useful, and discard the rest. I’m a big picture gal and will remember the outcome, but not necessarily the details of how I got there.

This may not work for you (see the disclaimer at the beginning) and that is okay.

Currently I’m being fed little dribbles of info by a nutritionist every second week as I seek to overcome a lifetime of emotional eating and it is driving me crazy. She clearly thinks that I might get overwhelmed, but I’m feeling like I’m being given a jigsaw puzzle one or two bits at a time. The worst part is, I know most of what she is telling me (I’ve immersed myself in learning about nutrition again and again over the years), I’m just trying to work out how to put it all together! Meanwhile, I think she is a details gal and is trying to get me to join her.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling on. (Ed: are you sure about that? See below...)

How can the power of immersion help us as creatives?

Strangely, given what I have told you about myself, I do not suggest it as a matter of course. Because my darned [note appropriate bowdlerism instead of deletion] nutritionist is right. I need to see each piece of the puzzle clearly before I put it in place.

Doing two years worth of maths in a handful of weeks got me through the exam but left me with little long term understanding of mathematical concepts. I have no idea, now, what the essay I wrote for The Oxford Tutor (great name for a novel) was about, except Britain at the Turn of The Century (the previous one, not the most recent one, which was still to come when I was at uni) – although I have an acute memory of going through multitudinous Punch magazines as part of the immersion.

Okay? you ask, a puzzled expression on your face. So..?

What immersion does for you is like a power step towards your long term goals. It can give you an overview of the whole - a place from where you can view the finished picture and start to see where the puzzle pieces fit in.