Conditional vs. Absolute Learning
The Power of Uncertainty

Richard Powers


How you're first presented a dance has a tremendous impact on how you later dance it, as well as how much you enjoy it.  But the specifics of this may surprise you, perhaps being the opposite of what you might expect.

Many dancers believe that the best first exposure to a dance form, as well as the best continuing instruction, comes from the most highly specified, detailed, technical "correct" teaching.  We believe this because teachers constantly tell us this.  They tell us that they are the experts, that there is only one correct way to do the dance, and they know all of the exacting details of that One Way.  To learn otherwise, they say, will "engender bad habits."  This sounds convincing, doesn't it?  Those teachers know that this approach sells, because that's what most people want to hear.  (You'll see why soon.)


You already know that the One-Way-Only part of that pitch is flawed, when it comes to truly social dancing.  That's easy to dismiss.  You know that each of your dance partners is different, in a wide variety of ways... different shapes and sizes, different ways of moving, different levels of dance experience, different paces of learning, each having learned from different teachers, or from no teacher – just picking it up on the fly from their friends.  Social dancing is for enjoyment, so you respect and even admire that each of their different backgrounds is valid, and you enjoy adapting to their differences.  See more about that here.

However there are some dancers and teachers who will disagree with the validity of individuality and personal preference.  They feel very strongly that theirs is the one and only Correct way to dance, and that all of the other versions are wrong.  They will force their dance partners to dance in exactly their own preferred style, or they'll criticize their dancing as "incorrect."  See the "Sketchy Guys" page here.



But the main thrust of this page is something new, and more fundamental.

New research shows that when we're presented with any facts as absolute truths, even math and science, we tend to use them thoughtlessly, often making bad, inappropriate or limited decisions.  But when we're presented with the same information in a conditional way ("Maybe it's so, but maybe it's also this other way."), we process the information, and we use the information, in smarter, more effective, and more creative ways.

Someone may reasonably argue, "Sure I can be flexible later, after I learn the basics of a dance.  But in that first learning, I want to do it the one correct way, with all of the precise details."

And this is where Langer and others most strongly disagree.  Optionality in that first exposure is especially important.



This is Ellen J. Langer of the Harvard University Department of Psychology.  She specializes in the science and psychology of learning.  Here are some paraphrased excerpts from her work  (quoted with her permission).
Whenever we attempt to learn something, we rely on ways of learning that typically work to our detriment and virtually prevent the very goals we are trying to accomplish.  The mind-sets we hold regarding learning more often than not encourage mindlessness, although learning requires mindful engagement with the material in question. 

Mindfulness, as we use the term, is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.  When we are in a state of mindlessness, we act like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present.  Instead of actively drawing new distinctions, noticing new things, as we do when we are mindful, when we are mindless we are stuck in a single, fixed perspective, and we are often oblivious to alternative ways of knowing.  When we are mindless, our behavior is rule and routine governed.

Experimental research, conducted over 25 years, reveals that the costs of mindlessness, and the benefits of mindfulness, are vast and often profound.  Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in accidents; an increase in memory, creativity, a decrease in stress; and an increase in health and longevity, to name a few of the benefits.  And as will become clear, there is power in uncertainty, yet most of us mistakenly seek certainty.


            Traditional teaching

Most teaching unintentionally fosters mindlessness.  Facts are typically presented as closed packages, without attention to perspective.  Most of what we learn in school, at home, from television, and from nonfiction books, we may mindlessly accept because it's given to us in an unconditional form.  The information is presented from a single perspective as though it is true, independent of context.  It just is.

Scientists know that research results in findings that are probably true, given the context in which the work was tested.  When these findings are reported by teachers or in textbooks, they are translated from probabilities into absolute statements that hide the uncertainty.  Statements of probability are not only more accurate, they are also more interesting and engaging.

It's not just scientists who do this.  One of the "basic skills" of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it in bite-size pieces to students.  For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature.  But facts, whether derived from science or not, are not context-free; their meaning and usefulness depend on the situation.  Virtually all of our facts depend on context.

When we ignore perspective, we tend to confuse the stability of our mind-sets with the stability of the phenomenon.  Things are constantly changing, whether we like it or not.  And at any one moment they are different from different perspectives.  Yet we hold them still in our minds, as if they were constant.  We want to hold them as constant ideas, and we want to believe that the phenomena are constant.  This is a part of human nature — an especially unhelpful part.

Learning the basics in a rote, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity.  It also deprives learners of maximizing their own potential for more effective performance.  And for enjoyment of the activity.

Consider tennis.  At tennis camp I was taught exactly how to hold my racket and toss the ball when serving.  We were all taught the same way.  When I later watched the U.S. Open, I noticed that none of the top players served the way I was taught, and, more important, each of them served differently.  And each one varied their own technique to adjust to their different competitors.  But the rules we are given to practice are based on generally accepted truths about how to perform the task, and not on our individual abilities.  If we mindlessly practice these skills exactly as we are taught, it keeps the activity from becoming our own.  Each difference between me and my competitors could become a problem if I take each instruction as absolute truth.  If we learn the basics but do not overlearn them, we can vary them as we change, or as the situation changes.
That's a key finding of Langer's work — the importance of not overlearning a task.  You can clearly see the parallel in social dance, but now adapting to partners instead of to competitors.

And whose basics are they anyway?  Quoting Langer,
Perhaps the very notion of basics needs to be questioned.  So-called basic skills are normatively derived.  They are usually at least partially applicable for most people some of the time.  They are sometimes not useful at all for some people.  If they are overlearned, they are not likely to be varied, even when variation would be advantageous.

In the classroom, teaching one set of basics for everyone may appear to be easier for the teacher because the teacher needs to know less.  A single routine leaves little room for disagreement and hence may foster obedience to authority.

            The value of doubt and uncertainty

The key to this better way of teaching is based on an appreciation of the conditional nature of the world and the value of uncertainty.  Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt, and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them.
Here's a quote from Gilda Radner, as she was dealing with cancer:
"I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end.  Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next.  Delicious ambiguity."

Valuing doubt and uncertainty does not mean disbelieving what others tell us.  It's not saying "No."  We aim to understand what others tell us, but with a deeper, not superficial, understanding.  We can say "Yes," but it's smarter to think "Yes - but..."  Or "Yes - and...", considering alternative scenarios.


I've been teaching dance conditionally, not absolutely, for decades.  But not because of Langer's research.  That's new.  It's because conditional uncertainty is the greater truth of social dance.

I've always presented social dance as, "This can work, but another way can also work," because that's the essential truth.  The lesson I give my students in their very first week is, "If it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way."  It's only recently that I've come across Langer's research that shows that conditional teaching also helps people learn better, use information more effectively, and creatively, with fewer mistakes, and enjoy it more.

            ...as opposed to what they want...

Langer points out that many people don't like not knowing with certainty.  All of their school-learning has trained them to expect certainty, and to be told what the facts mean.  So people are often affronted if they don't get the pre-digested form they expect.  Especially if they've just spent almost a decade of their life learning under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, where their teacher's priorities have been to "teach to the test."  As a result, many students have come to believe that  (1) There is only one correct answer to any question, and  (2) Someone else will give them that answer – they can't come up with it on their own.  Then in their first week of learning swing, they discover that if a swing move doesn't work out in their expected way, it will work out in another cool way.  And they can come up with those ways themselves.  It's often a double revelation.


            Self confidence

This approach also leads to increased self-confidence.  Dance taught me that.  Arthur Murray also said that dance taught him self-confidence, back when he was a shy uncertain young man.

Do you ever lie awake at night worrying that things won't work out the one way that you believe they must?  Or oppositely, do you know that if it doesn't work out one way, it will work out some other way, and you get a good night's sleep?  This way you worry less, and you're open to new paths when they present themselves.  This is a significant part of self-confidence — knowing that you can make things work out for yourself and friends, one way or another.

This also helps us look at life freshly, as it is, and as it's always changing.  And optimistically, as possibilities.

To quote Helen Keller, " When one door of happiness closes, another opens - but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one that has been opened for us."

It's not hard to retrain ourselves to welcome chance intrusions into our expectations  It also makes us more creative, and much happier.

And beyond dancing, wanting life to go exactly as you wish it, and wanting people to behave just as you want them to, is violating a basic tenet of life.  If you have that response, you will find yourself fighting losing battles all of your life.  People are going to be the way they are.  Do you want to spend your life fighting that?  Or you can find ways to appreciate and enjoy the great varieties that people present to you.


Langer's experiments:

Ellen Langer and her colleagues taught a sport to research subjects.  To eliminate the advantage of previous learning, participants were instructed in how to play a new game they invented: Smack-It Ball.  The game is similar to squash except that a small racket – that fits like a baseball mitt – is worn on both hands.  Two control groups were instructed in how to use the rackets — either in conditional or absolute language.  For example, "one way to hold your hand might be ..."  with language that suggested variation and perspective.  Versus "this is the correct way to hold your hand."  After practicing the game, they surreptitiously changed the ball to one that was heavier and thus required different body movements.  Those who were taught absolutely not only dropped the ball, literally, they often became angry that something had been changed from the one correct way they had learned.

I've often seen this same reaction in ballroom dancers who have been taught dance absolutely — anger and frustration when they don't experience the only partnering they've been taught to expect.

Langer went on to say, "Given the way most people are taught to practice, the idea that 'practice makes perfect' is questionable."

To which I would add: "Unless you practice being spontaneously flexible."  And we do that in my Stanford Dance Division classes — constantly practicing being flexible, always open to unexpected possibilities, every day.


Here is another of Langer's experiments:
In one study, novice piano players were introduced to a simple C major scale under two conditions, explicitly mindful or traditional practice.  All subjects were given essentially the same instruction in piano, with the following variations.  Members of group 1, the mindful instruction group, were told to be creative and to vary their playing as much as possible.  These subjects were told: " Try to keep learning new things about your piano playing.  Try to change your style every few minutes, and not lock into one particular pattern.  While you practice, attend to the context, which may include very subtle variations or any feelings, sensations, or thoughts you are having."  Then the specific lesson was given, and subjects spent twenty minutes practicing it.  The control group was taught to practice in the traditional, memorization-through-repetition of one correct technique.  The piano playing was taped for evaluation.  Musicians who had extensive keyboard and compositional experience rated the playing.  In addition, the subjects were asked how well they liked the lessons.  The findings of this study confirmed our hypotheses. In comparison with the control group, the subjects given mindful instruction were rated as more competent and more creative, and they also expressed more enjoyment of the activity.

     A contrast in enjoyment:

I found another clear example in one our class essays.  One student wrote about her trip home during Thanksgiving break.  She had just learned the waltz and she loved it, especially Cross-Step waltz.  She was excited to show it to her boyfriend during the break.  However he had just learned the ballroom Box Step Waltz, taught in the absolute manner.  When she showed him the waltz she loved, he immediately set about correcting her.  "NO, your left hand has to be here. No... here. No, you must begin on the heel then transfer weight to the ball of the foot on the half-count. No, your posture must be in counter-body sway. No, your have to lean farther back, and look sharply to your left. No, more!"  After a half-hour of being roundly criticized, she still hadn't made it to the 6th step of the box.  She was in tears.  But here's the interesting part:  He admitted that he didn't even like the waltz.  But he had learned how to do it "correctly."  Langer would attribute his lack of enjoyment in dancing the waltz, compared to her great pleasure, to his absolute process of learning it.


Another student wrote an essay about paying attention.  She said that she had been told to pay attention in class all of her life — a one-way flow of information from books into her brain.  But here, in social dance, she experienced something quite different:  paying attention to a dance partner who is paying attention to her, with each constantly adapting to the other.  She said that the dancing that results from that two-way dynamic was so much more engaging, involving and enjoyable.

That goes back to Langer's definition of mindful learning, as "a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context."



          In conclusion...

1) Unfortunately, human nature wants to believe that the world, and the facts about any given topic, are absolute and certain.  But that view of the world usually isn't true.

In order for the absolute-authority dance teachers to give their students the illusion of certainty, the teachers must intentionally misrepresent the immense diversity of social dance into a predictable set of rules and patterns.  As a result, their students are ill-prepared when they dance with the 99% of the world that hasn't learned their one style of dance, and thus tend to become frustrated, disapproving and angry.  (That's especially ironic if they learned such an antisocial attitude in a class entitled Social Dance.)


2) With conditional learning we learn better... use information more effectively... with fewer mistakes.  To let Langer conclude in her own words:
As we saw, the concept of mindfulness revolves around certain states that are really different versions of the same thing:  (1) openness to novelty;  (2) sensitivity to different contexts;  and (3) implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives.  Each leads to the others and back to itself.  Learning a subject or skill with an openness to novelty — and actively noticing different contexts and perspectives — makes us receptive to changes in an ongoing situation.  In such a state of mind, basic skills and information help guide our behavior in the present, rather than run it, like a computer program.

3) Research shows that we enjoy something more when we learn it conditionally.


4) Ellen Langer demonstrated that conditional learning is important in any field, even math and science.  But conditional learning is doubly effective when applied to social dancing, because the topic itself is so conditional, with situations and partners constantly changing.

An absolute attitude can't function (at least not sociably) in such a conditional environment.  How can a hard-and-fast approach, to a dynamic that isn't hard-and-fast, possibly be true?  The truth of social dance is conditional, and furthermore Langer's work has shown that when we learn something as being conditional, we use the information in smarter, more effective, more creative and more enjoyable ways.


More thoughts and musings