Nonno Matteo’s Lessons For Learning

Our region experienced very strong winds recently, and there was significant damage, with lots of trees uprooted or snapped, fences flattened, and roof shingles blown off. My in-laws had a chimney topple, thanks in part to an old-style TV antenna attached to it.

So my father-in-law, my son, and I spent much of this past weekend fixing the chimney, which involved renting, transporting, and erecting scaffolding, installing a new steel interior pipe, new clay interior pipe around the steel pipe, and then finally the concrete blocks on the outside of the chimney.

It was good to get out of the house and move the body (alas, I spend most of my time sitting around inside my house), especially because the weather was the best so far this spring. Let’s just hope the building inspector approves the work!

My father-in-law Matteo (his grandchildren call him “Nonno Matteo”) is an amazing person. He will be 81 next month, and loves work, still actively running his fruit farm. He particularly likes the puzzle-solving that often accompanies fixing broken things, which he much prefers to buying a new one. He did not have the opportunity to get much formal education, but he has made up for it by doing a tremendous amount of learning on his own, thanks to his unique vivacity and passionate intensity.

Working with Nonno Matteo is fun, because he makes it fun. There is a certain amount of good-natured teasing thrown around, particularly between he and his sons, which is wildly entertaining for everyone else present. But beyond this, there is his deep satisfaction in the process of work, of analyzing a problem, formulating a solution, carrying it out with the help of the team he has assembled, and then enjoying the final results.

For Nonno Matteo, work is joy. Maybe that explains why he is still, at his age, up on a roof operating like a man in his thirties.

Having known him for 30 years now, I have had ample opportunities to observe him, but I was nevertheless shocked one day to hear how he learned to do household electrical work. He is a carpenter by profession, and I knew he learned this trade from his father. I have also seen him spend hours tinkering in his barn with all manner of mechanical devices, so I knew that he learned how to build and repair motors, engines, compressors, tractors, and so on, more or less by trial and error. He taught himself to weld in the same way.

We were reminiscing one day about various electrical projects we had been doing (independently) over the years, when I asked my father in law how he learned to do electrical work. I learned how to do basic electrical work by taking shop classes in high school. I’ve received electrical shocks a few times, and so have a healthy respect for the dangers involved, and could not imagine someone learning this trade by tinkering. I was therefore completely unprepared for his reply, which he meant to apply to anything he had learned, not just electrical work.

Anything you want to learn, you have to try for yourself first. When you reach a problem that you can’t solve alone, then you go ask someone for help. But if you don’t try it yourself first, then when you ask someone for help you won’t learn anything, and you won’t remember anything. You have to try it yourself first.

The more I thought about my father-in-law’s words, the more I realized how true they were in my experience too, both as a learner and as a teacher. The implications are profound. Nonno Matteo’s methods were just the methods that I had been using in my classroom at the time we had the conversation.

I don’t believe that this is a universal truth about all learning, but I do think it is an important lesson for all of us teachers and learners. Yes, we don’t want airline pilots and surgeons to be learning by trying things out first, but I believe that all learning, not just school learning or book learning, would benefit by paying more attention to the value of learning by trying things out. Unfortunately, the school system inhibits this spirit, by penalizing mistakes, which are a natural consequence of trying things out.

Any teacher who has faced students who are “stuck” and have no idea what to do, because they haven’t been shown exactly what to do, can relate. Our school system, despite the goal of producing independent learners, has all too frequently stunted the growth of our young.

One of the attributes that makes my father-in-law such a great learner is his fearlessness. He is not afraid to fail, not afraid to make mistakes, and not afraid to look like a fool. This means he is quick to try new things, that he makes far more mistakes than average, and so he learns far more than most.

Imagine a child learning to walk. Now place in that child the typical self-consciousness of an adult. How many such children would ever learn to walk? “That’s the third time in a row I’ve fallen. Now I really look like an idiot. I just don’t think I’m cut out for walking. The other children must think I’m stupid. Look at Emily — she can walk easily. Why can’t I?” Children are contrastingly direct: They fall, then they get back up. Then they fall again, and get back up again. Again and again. Until they master walking. They don’t seem to care that it may take them months to merely toddle along, and that it may take years before they really master all the intricacies of walking, including hopping, running, and so on. They don’t seem to care who is judging them. They just forge ahead.

Great learners have retained this child-like attitude to learning into adulthood. They don’t care who is watching and judging, they just forge ahead.

Nonno Matteo is a shining example of this beautiful child-like spirit of learning. We need to help our students retain this spirit, which they have as children, but which is effectively beaten out of almost all of them by the time they reach adolescence.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 22 January 2021.)