Last night I went to see Riverrun at the Sydney Theatre Company in Walsh Bay, Sydney. We had a pre-show drink on the east-facing balcony, looking over towards the great salute to engineering and ingenuity in the face of great adversity, the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was a perfect early-Autumned night where humidity had left the city for its timeshare further north, the Bridge’s hardness made organic by a constant flow of people on trains, people in cars and people making the pilgrimage along its spine on the Bridgewalk. The show itself was a mixture of mind-bending twists of language and a totality of acting skill that I have not seen for some time. One women, a monologue, a stage. 90 minutes of metaphor and meddling with what you think of as English.

I happily admit that I only understood around 1 in 10 phrases that were being uttered. Without having read James Joyce and without having prepped myself with even a little Googleing, I felt quite separate from the performance going on infront of me. And yet. And yet I wasn’t as disengaged as I was in some other productions in which I fully understand the dialogue but it is just so bad or abstract or ineffective that I find myself distracted by anything from a face in the crowd to the design of the seats.

Misunderstanding isn’t necessarily something that will cause disengagement. I don’t understand the vast majority of other languages, and yet I can still attempt a conversation or make some human connection with the person through hand gestures, body language and other basic methods of communication. I may not understand the rules of a particular sport but I can still enjoy watching it. I may not quite comprehend the nature of an artwork and yet I can still be entranced by its beauty.

I notice more and more that my students speak in ways that are not familiar to me. Despite not being quite as far gone as some other teachers, I still find myself asking students to explain particular ideas or phrases – as they do for me. We are of different times, despite sharing time and space here and there. Do I quit and stop listening? Do I force them to learn my way of speaking? Well, to be very honest, yes sometimes I do. We teach them particular ways of writing, speaking and acting that are conducive to what I understand the proper way to be. We teach them the ways to answer questions that will reduce misunderstanding for a marker. We correct them when they are, in our eyes, wrong.

Many people – including myself – find misunderstanding frustrating. Especially over small things or when your deadline is fast approaching (or receding into the distance) and you just need to get some social synapses connected so that you can move on. However, misunderstandings, confusion, frustration, struggling… all these things must be experienced to know when we have broken through a new phase of understanding. How can we ever know we have progressed if we haven’t had some experience of being stuck in the mud? A process of learning that is too smooth will perhaps teach us less than a process of learning that is full of setbacks, questions, problems, issues and failings.

So the next time I am staring blankly at a student or a colleague while they stare blankly back at me, I’m going to try and think that misunderstandings are not the enemy of learning, but the stuff that makes learning worthwhile.

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