By Joem Antonio

Around two years ago, I first encountered Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning. I still somehow remember her at one point challenging the number of hours spent on formal education. “The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects—,” she said, “but does that always mean they are actually more learned and know more?”

Her question burned in my memory as, months later, while I was showing my Rizal class how Rizal got sobresaliente in all of his subjects in Ateneo, a student exclaimed, “They only had four subjects per school year?” I was dumbstruck. Having spent around five to eight semesters teaching Rizal, it was only now that detail caught my eye. A student could easily follow up the exclamation with an argument: If I only had four subjects instead of eight, I’d probably get sobresaliente consistently as well.

In the writing workshops I conduct, on two separate occasions I’ve received the same thought-provoking compliment: “I’ve learned more in these few hours than what I’ve learned in a whole semester.” I don’t really know what they exactly mean by that. But I’d hate to be the teacher conducting the semester for those students. That statement, while flattering, sounded like the complete reverse of “that meeting could just have been an email.” In the context of the classroom, “that semester could just have been a workshop.”

These three incidents had gotten me to think about two things: Do we need that much time to teach what we should be teaching? Or are we adjusting the lessons to the teaching time allotted to us?

These questions for me are quite important to reflect on, especially in the time of quarantine. We’re losing a month of teaching time. Probably more. Are we to simply throw in the towel and cut our losses? Or is there a way to still provide our students their tuition fee’s worth by innovating in the time of inconvenience?

While trying to find a way to comply to the initial mandate that we try to teach online, I binged on YouTube on learning and teaching. By this time I’ve watched numerous videos, and it recently came to a point when the different talks started to come together into a strange mind machine.

Before I discuss the strange mind machine I’ve cobbled up together, I’d like to share the components of my machine. Marty Lobdell, for example, has a one-hour lecture on “How to Study Less and Study Smart.” From Josh Kaufman I learned that you can learn anything in the first 20 hours. From the The Art of Improvement Channel, I learned about Benjamin Franklin’s Five-Hour Rule. Barbara Oakley discussed in Learning How to Learn, among other things, the Pomodoro Technique. Lastly, Scott Geller provided me with the “Psychology of Self-Motivation.” I mention all of these, as I don’t have enough words in this medium to do each of them justice, and if anyone wants to learn more, they’re easier to find online.


In my mind machine, this is how these people connected together in terms of learning:

Marty Lobdell pointed out in his lecture that it’s not the number of hours you dedicate to studying, but rather how you spend your time studying. Lobdell’s claim made a lot of sense when Josh Kaufman demonstrated how he learned to play the ukulele from scratch in just 20 hours. His secret was simple: He deconstructed the skill into the essential microskills, learned enough to be able to self correct, removed distractions during practice, and he spent 20 hours practicing the microskills.

Benjamin Franklin’s Five-Hour Rule stated that Franklin used to spend one hour of deliberate learning during all the weekdays. Combining Franklin’s 5-Hour Rule and Kaufman’s First 20 Hours, the former can divide the latter into one hour of practicing a microskill during the weekdays for four weeks. While a particular skill requires you 20 hours, a microskill requires less, possibly just even an hour. It then becomes a matter of identifying which microskill will naturally prompt the microskills to follow.

Considering how Barbara Oakley discusses the Pomodoro Technique, wherein one takes a five-minute break after a 15- to 20-minute activity, it might be possible to break the learning of a microskill into around three 15-minute lessons per hour.

But what can these three 15-minute lessons be? Here is where Scott Geller’s psychology of self motivation helps. According to him, there are three questions to ask whether someone—say, a student—feels empowered:

(1) Can you do it?

(2) Will it work?

(3) Is it worth it?

If a student says yes to all three, then it means that the student feels empowered. In the case of teaching and learning, Geller’s questions can be retooled as learning objectives. In three 15-minute lessons on the same microskill, the student must learn the following:

(1) that the microskill is doable on the student’s level,

(2) that the microskill yields the targeted output, and

(3) that the microskill’s output is worthwhile.

So far the mind machine, when summarized, can easily look like 20 units comprising the subject’s main skill, with each of the 20 units broken down into as many as 20 microskills, and each of these microskills divisible into three microlessons on the microskill’s doability, output, and value. If a teacher takes time to break their subject down into these units, it will become easier to identify which microskills to prioritize in the time when we’ll be teaching significantly less. The well-picked microskills can, at best, propel the student—after having learned that what they can do yields worthwhile output—to self learning.

But that’s not all. When the quarantine began, we already had delivered part of the 20 hours. Which microskills have we already passed on to our students?

Of course, my mind machine is very much like the tinkering of a mad scientist: building a Frankenstein’s monster of theories, hoping it will help teach students more despite the drastically reduced time frame.

But given our inconvenient circumstances, now that we’re forced to teach less, we have to evoke from our students the love and respect for our subjects: That what we will ask them is something that they can do with a worthwhile outcome… Worthwhile, way beyond the context of the grade. As we teach our students less, let those limited lessons evoke the yearning and capacity for more self-initiated learning. Teach less, and let the students learn more.

If there’s a silver lining to this COVID-19 outbreak, the quarantine, and this uncertain semester, is that it has forced me to reflect further on Dorothy Sayer’s challenge as well as to innovate in this time of inconvenience.

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