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Put It Away For a While – It’ll Be Easier To Learn

I recently relearned something that Mrs. Vollink, my piano teacher, taught me when I was in sixth grade.

Mrs. Vollink liked to present an occasional challenge, and I liked meeting the challenges.

Challenges came in the form of sheet music; Mrs. Vollink seemed to delight in shopping for special pieces of music to pique her students’ interest. If Christmas was coming, for example, she would bring some special music for the season.

The sheet music came as a reward for hard work – after all my effort, I was now ready to play a splendidly interesting new piece! But it was always a challenge as well, requiring me to learn some new skills.

A Mrs. Vollink challenge to her 6th grade student

The problem was, however, that the exciting new music Mrs. Vollink brought was sometimes a bit more challenging than I was ready to handle. Even though I might have started learning the music in early November, by Christmas, I still might not have been able to play it.

In such cases, Mrs Vollink had a simple solution. After several weeks of work, she would say, “You’ve worked very hard, but it’s time to put this one away for a while.” She’d slip the music off the piano and put it aside.

Several months later, she’d take the music out again, and seemingly by magic, the music that a few months earlier had been so difficult would suddenly be quite easy to master.

Learning Polish

Recently, after working in Poland for half a year, I decided to learn Polish. It’s a tough language to learn. First of all, you have to relearn the sounds of letters.

  • The Polish cz spells our ch,
  • The Polish ci also spells our ch, and
  • Their rz makes a zh sound.

In addition, the grammar is incredibly complex. All in all, it’s a challenge Mrs. Vollink might have liked.

Every week I Skype with Piotr, a friend from Krakow, and every week I learn new new words and new grammar. By the end of last spring, however, it seemed that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make new information stick in my head. New words got mixed up with old words. During conversations I could hardly remember how to put two words together.

I felt embarrassingly thick-headed.

Fortunately, the past summer was very busy for both of us, so there were no Polish lessons. I stopped studying. This fall, instead of trying to learn new material

I started over – at the very beginning.

I reviewed.

Suddenly, the impossible, confusing, incomprehensible material started to fit together. And surprisingly, Piotr has been exclaiming over my new ability to hold a conversation in (broken) Polish.

Mrs. Vollink would be proud. I had used her learning trick. I had “put this one away for a while,” and that, with a little review, had made things much easier to learn.

It’s an educational tool that’s worth remembering. Sometimes we advance learning best by stepping away from a subject for a time before reviewing old material and then starting afresh.

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