Martha Graham, the renowned dancer and choreographer, was once asked to share something controversial that she believed, something radical that set her apart and that most people would not agree with.
Her answer was surprising in how non-controversial it seemed:
“I believe that we learn by practice.”
So… what’s so radical about that? Is that really something anyone would disagree with?
Well, she goes on:
“Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit.”
The belief that everything we learn, “physical or intellectual”, is learned by repeatedly doing, even by “a dedicated, precise set of acts”, is actually quite radical. It’s a deep perspective on the human condition that differs massively from how people typically think about the value of practice.
Practice is not just about learning math, learning to draw, learning to drive, learning to speak a foreign language. It’s also core to learning to be a parent, learning to have a friendship, learning to be brave—to learning anything at all, up to and including living life itself.
No human is born with this knowhow; we each have to learn these things. Learning means practice. And practice means doing, and perforce experimentation, awkwardness, mistakes, and failure. On the road to doing anything at all—not just the sorts of common things you naturally think of under the heading of “learning”, but really just “being human”—you should expect, at best, clumsiness. There might be shortcuts and ways to learn faster, but according to Graham, you can’t bypass the need to learn by doing. And that means doing imperfectly, across the variegated domains and stakes of life.
This is a sobering thought when it comes to something like the care and nuance required for successful human relationships. There’s only one way to become a good, say, friend, or spouse: the hard way.
That’s because the practice of which Graham speaks isn’t just the “practice” of a friendly scrimmage or a dress rehearsal. Practice is a kind of performance. It makes sense: if you have to practice everything, then practicing doing something for real is part of what you have to learn—as knows anyone who has ever practiced a speech in private and then delivered it before a crowd.
Practice goes all the way down. We start off as ignorant neophytes with respect to everything. We become experienced amateurs with respect to a great many things. We become accomplished experts in some things. We learn all things by practice—including the courage that it takes to learn by practice, the courage to “smile” while “practicing living at that instant of danger.” If learning from practice means that all grace is born from inelegance, then learning to gracefully handle that inelegance also must be learned by practice.
It probably hasn’t escaped you that this perspective is coordinate with our approach to education. “Learning by doing”, the progressive educator’s mantra, is not an especially precise slogan to describe the whole of Montessori education—there are other important components of learning. But it is a critical component, and it is baked into every aspect of our programming: there is nothing our students do, from math to character development, from history to social skills, from dressing oneself to the very act of making choices as such, that isn’t pursued as a practice, as something that the student can’t just study but must actively do, over and over, in deliberate and precise ways.
Our students even practice that aforementioned joy of practice. Our programs are set up to capitalize on natural developmental capacities and to create the “satisfaction of spirit” described by Graham.
This is even true for older students, for whom much of the work is study, and is done via abstract thought. Our view of knowledge is that it is a sort of crystallized practice, that it’s created in application and exists, even when dormant, in a constant state of readiness to be deployed. Learning requires problems and questions to become salient to a particular student, for solutions and answers to be discovered by that student—and, finally, for that student to stand ready to go on with that knowledge, to practice it. Intellectual practice is not just a metaphor. It is a kind of doing that one gets good at, by trial and error, by contact with real life.
Knowledge is a practice, in particular and in general. It is one of two or three truly crowning achievements in education. The “beauty of the alert and directed and lucid mind", in Graham’s phrasing, is achieved by the myriad practices of thinking: the practice of observing, the practice of abstracting, the practice of judging.
It’s a sin for me to have waited until the end of my riff on her essay to link to it. Go read it! The opening and closing paragraphs are among my favorite pieces of writing ever. Graham shows that, as sobering as it is to take seriously “that we learn by practice”, there’s also wonder and joy in learning to surrender to it and enjoy it.
It just takes a bit of practice.
Enjoy your weekends,
Executive Director, Montessorium