I had a student walk out of a clinic I taught at Earth Treks in Rockville, Maryland several years ago. I’ll call her Nicole. I asked the students what they expected to learn at the outset of the clinic. Nicole said she expected to get over her fear of falling. We started with the falling drills, which consisted of three increments: short toprope falls, longer toprope falls, and lead falls. Nicole said she wasn’t afraid of toprope falls and resisted doing them because she didn’t feel like she was learning what she needed to learn. Then, when we began the lead falls, Nicole was gone. She’d walked out of the clinic.

To understand her decision, a couple questions become relevant: What’s required for students to learn effectively from teachers? And, what’s required for teachers to be effective with their students? There needs to be a synergy between the teacher’s delivery of the training and the student’s receptivity to it. The main component that increases this synergy is commitment by the teacher and student to the learning process itself. The teacher commits to delivering the training so students learn most effectively. Students commit to being open to learning. The effectiveness of the training is at its highest once the student and teacher have both committed in this way.

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher who understood the importance of commitment in teaching. He was committed to doing his best for his students, but he had little control over the commitment he’d receive from them. Epictetus felt like his teachings would be wasted on those that didn’t recognize their weaknesses and who weren’t willing to work on them. Therefore, he expected two conditions to be satisfied before he’d take on new students:

  1. A sincere desire to benefit from training
  2. An understanding of what a commitment to training entails.

By being clear on these two points at the outset of training, both teacher and student maximize the use of their time.

I’ve taught thousands of student throughout the last two decades. I’ve had students that gained a lot from the training, some that gained a little, and others that didn’t seem to gain anything. There are many factors that could contribute to these outcomes. I’ve committed to delivering the training by incorporating the various ways students learn, and of course, I still have more to learn about teaching effectively. However, the clinic we teach has been highly refined and I’m very committed to teaching it as effectively as possible each time I teach.

Students need to assess Epictetus’ two points when considering taking training. First, a sincere desire to benefit from training emphasizes our motivation. We need a powerful reason for engaging in training because it’s stressful and costs money. This reason can come from various places. Sometimes we’re inspired by a genuine interest for learning. Other times we need a boost that comes from frustration, fear, or a traumatic event. Whether inspired or needing a boost, it’s easier to commit to training than staying where we are. When students focuses on Epictetus’ first point, they’re motivated to engage learning situations with heightened curiosity and patience.

Second, students need to understand what is involved in a commitment to training. This points toward the way effective learning progresses: having the patience to engage stress incrementally, paying attention, and trusting the teacher to guide the learning process. We emphasize this process in our clinics and use the falling drills to give students their own experience to validate this point. They understand the need for falling incrementally, improve the way they fall, and heighten their attention to the task as they progress through the three increments. However, if students are overly achievement motivated, then they won’t be patient and their expectations can interfere with doing the drills and trusting the teacher.

This is what happened to Nicole. She expected to “get over her fear of falling,” which emphasized the end result she wanted. She didn’t have patience for the first two toprope increments, wanting to jump quickly to lead falls. She wasn’t learning what she thought she needed to learn, or in the manner she thought she should learn it, which resulted in her inability to trust me to guide her.

How can students know what they need to learn before they learn it? The answer is: they can’t. It’s fine, in fact helpful, to be skeptical. One should never trust teachers too much. Teachers have their own flawed ways of teaching or how they understand subjects, so skepticism is important. Students should also be skeptical about their own safety and not blindly do what teachers tell them to do, especially in rock climbing where serious injuries can occur. But, beyond this healthy skepticism, students need to trust that teachers have a better understanding of subjects than they do.

The most effective learning occurs when we’re moved completely into stress and willingly stay there. In other words, we commit fully to the learning event. Hesitation about whether or not we should trust the teacher keeps us from fully committing to whatever drills we’re asked to do. Therefore, students should evaluate their commitment prior to signing up and paying for training. Teachers too should always look for ways to modify their teaching styles to help students understand what is being taught. Together, teacher and student focus on the learning process itself by maintaining a desire to learn, to pay attention, and be willing to do the work.

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