“Exposure” Works Learning Magic for Kids. And Adults, Too.

latest US News has a revealing article on successfully reformed
schools, but I was especially struck by a couple paragraphs about
differing approaches at schools for educating low-income children. 
Low-income children often bring two limitations to school: small
vocabularies and limited background knowledge. 

For example, at one school in the Louisiana Bayous, George Hall, teachers know
that their students haven’t had the opportunity to travel.  They live
ten minutes from the bayou, but they’ve never seen a boat.  So they get
taken on a boat trip.  In fact, George Hall students go on an average
of one field trip a month, each one carefully selected to help students
learn a great deal about the world around them.  Each trip comes
accompanied by writing, videotaping, and blogging assingnments.  Not
only do students get to hold a snake, for example, but they have
multiple opportunities to use snake-related words such as slithery, slippery, and scales.

Exposure to different experiences, of course, is a lot more than
just the experience.  It’s learning about the experience, being able to
analogize from that experience, and being able to put the learning from
that experience into practice in other settings.

Exposure learning shows itself to be a highly useful process for
everyone.  Some years ago, the chairman of the speech-communication
department at the University of Minnesota asked if I’d be willing to
teach a course in basic communication skills at a maximum security
prison in one of the distant suburbs.  At the time, I’d just left a
university position, and though I was building my business, I had the
time to teach one course.  Much to my suprise I found that one of the
course members had spent a year in the home of one of my professors
from undergrad college.  The state of Kentucky often furloughed
prisoners to attend school if there was an available family willing to
take them in.  I knew immediately that he was giving me no snow job for
he described the profs in detail as well as buildings, events and other
teachers at my college.  Then he described living with my prof and his
wife.  He said that there was time devoted each day to studies with
tutoring from one of them, a movie nite, a theater night (staged
productions), a sports night, and a restaurant nite.  He loved the
exposure and performed very well in college

So why, I asked him are you in prison now?  He leaned back and told
me that my prof and his wife had had a different prisoner every year
for more than twenty years, all of whom, except him, had gone on to
graduate from college and hold down a job.  The exposure and experience
they had provided these criminals had been of much value.  And, he was,
he related, the only “jerk” in the bunch.  He was, he continued, a
compulsive thief and deserved to be in prison.  I commented that I
thought a 90% success rate was pretty damn good.  He held up his hands
in frustration and agreed.  In spite of my student’s record, exposure
and learning can often work magic. 

At the other end of the age spectrum, when my first grandchild was
exactly 28 months old, he initiated me into the truck business.  His
parents were living in a Philadelphia suburb off the Mainline, about a
block from a grammar school that was completing a major renovation. 
Trucks were pretty constant up and down the street, and as with a lot
of little boys, he was enamored of them.  Since we lived in Minnesota,
I hadn’t kept up with his verbal growth.  But he and I went for a walk
to see the school and the trucks.  Obviously, I was unaware that I had
a precocious monster on my hands, but that was immediately clear when I
pointed out a “biggggg dump truck” to him. 

With the disgust only a kid that age can demonstrate, he turned and
said, “Actually. . . (I knew right then I was in for trouble). 
“Actually, it’s an ar-tic-u-la-ted dumptruck.”

I had never heard of such an animal so he explained in great detail,
with little fingers pointing, and a serious face transfixed, telling
me how the dirt and gravel could come out of the middle of the truck,
instead of just the back, and that they could carry a bigger load than
other dumptrucks. Just a few years later, he was learning the math
to figure out how many cubic yards of gravel different trucks can

It’s all about exposure.

The same is true in the workworld.  Some of the best learning can
come from exposure to different experiences, what I call stretch
experience.  And still other learning can come from exposure to better
company processes.  I often urge Gen-Yers to get into the best firm
possible, even if for just a few years.  You’ll always learn more from
the processes of the better run companies.  Working with great
processes is more important than working with highly talented people. 
After that exposure, you can go do your own thing outside the corporate

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