What Mike Birbiglia Has to Teach You About Deeper Learning

Something happened after that last post about comedy and the lessons it could bring to our work. I listened to standup. A LOT of standup. One unintended, but much welcome, consequence of that is that I listened to two albums by Mike Birbiglia in two days.

Mike Birbiglia’s style has gradually evolved from a series of disparate but still funny bits (pretty standard for the industry), into narrative-heavy stories. The bits are more gracefully weaved together than most stand-up specials than you might see, probably because he traveled with this pair of specials as one-man shows. The first, Sleepwalk With Me, was turned into a movie with the help of public radio’s king of storytelling, This American Life’s Ira Glass. The second one, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is currently on Netflix in its live show form and, according to Wikipedia (ha!), is also turning into a movie.

On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about learning lately. Between Cheating Lessons, The Unschooled Mind, and my current read, What the Best College Students Do, much of my reading time has been consumed with discussions about how to help students learn better. A term that has surfaced in all of these books, and MANY other places, is “deeper learning”

Simply defined, “deeper learning” is the “process of learning for transfer,” meaning it allows a student to take what’s learned in one situation and apply it to another, explained James Pellegrino, one of the authors of the report. “You can use knowledge in ways that make it useful in new situations,” he said in a recent webinar. “You have procedural knowledge of how, why, and when to apply it to answer questions and solve problems.” (Pellegrino, Deeper Learning Report) Without (likely) meaning to, Mike’s comedy fits this bill of the sorts of learning and storytelling that we want our students to be able to do. And I guess, so does this post? Neat.

In both Sleepwalk with Me and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Mike sets out to tell one larger story by weaving together smaller, at times seemingly insignificant or unrelated moments from his younger life. When we really think about what we hope students will be able to do with the fragments of their education that they pick up in history classromms, or biology labs, this is what we want: for them to connect them to one another. Mike’s narratives involve time jumps and various topics, but ultimately weave into a coherent and hilarious story.

While the hilarious element is optional, an education could be compared to any piece of IKEA furniture-

The ABSOLUTE worst case scenario when it comes to knowledge synthesis for our students.

pieces packaged together and at times seemingly disparate, but can be assembled to make a coherent (and sometimes wobbly) structure, with pieces that still don’t make sense after the structure is completed.  Another element of IKEA furniture that we wish for in education: the pieces are amenable to being pulled apart and reassembled elsewhere. What good is passing a test on something and getting that A, that diploma, that walk across the stage, if that information doesn’t connect to anything you know, isn’t something you actually understand, or- worst of all- doesn’t stick with you at all? Mike’s evolution as a comedian mimics the way we hope students’ learning will evolve- from something they’ve seen or been used to seeing into a more tightly assembled, complete and cohesive style of expressing knowledge and understanding.

One bit that weaves into the longer narrative: The Scrambler
(In truth, I  just love this joke and want to share it.)

Another method that Birbiglia’s comedy features that our classrooms could also take a note from is a personal connection. Mike’s comedy is deeply personal, in a way that we don’t often ask students to connect to their content. His style of connecting himself to his work to make meaning is much like Ariel Diaz’s discussions about flipping classrooms to show application. 

To sum up Ariel’s talk, which I’ve done before, a great key to helping someone learn something is to help them connect to the content personally. His love of Formula One racing helped him understand physics and engineering concepts that were difficult to grasp in the abstract. The personal connection and love that he found in the content was essential to his understanding. And if we can find ways for students to personally connect to the content we present, as Mike clearly does with the topics of his comedy, perhaps they’ll find a mastery for it that the world can appreciate and see in how they do their work.

This might all seem a little lofty for student affairs, as we don’t touch on academic content often, if ever, in our work. The need to complete paperwork or work well with another organization might not seem as open to the lessons shared here. But maybe it could. Maybe you explain to Model UN how they need to follow a certain procedure by comparing it to a crisis that the actual UN is really dealing with. Maybe you help two groups that are having trouble planning a dance remember their own favorite and least favorite dance experiences as they plan.

There are ways to connect our students to their work as student leaders, and there are ways to help them connect seemingly random experiences into narratives that will help them find their calling. And, with any luck, we’ll be able to laugh through the busyness and craziness of it all.

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