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What a Scuba Diver with a Spinal Cord Injury Has to Teach Us About the Learning Process

Starting over with the bare essentials of life can offer important insights into learning at any age. #ProjectLiteracy

Stan Clawson. Image courtesy Aqua Dives Belize, 2005.

Stan Clawson loves to open the door for people. “They don’t expect it,” he says. Clawson, a filmmaker and communications professor based in Salt Lake City, is in his late 30s with sandy hair, blue eyes, and a handlebar mustache. He’s tall, “six-foot-four,” he says, “you know… laying down. Upright? I’m not sure. Maybe four-foot-eight? Four-ten?”


Clawson has the deep, dynamic voice of a radio announcer and something of the devil in him. He’s been in a wheelchair since a rock climbing accident when he was 20 years old, when he fell 49 feet and severed his spinal cord between the T9 and T10 vertebrae. Since then, he’s learned to boogie board and downhill ski. He’s competed in marathons. And he’s earned advanced certifications as an open water diver.

Clawson fearlessly performs activities that would be challenging enough without a physical disability, and it’s tempting to think of him as an inspiring anomaly. But to hear him tell it, his achievements are possible for two very simple reasons: Because he works very hard, and because he’s an attentive learner. And it’s true—a number of Clawson’s techniques for overcoming obstacles can be borrowed and repeated by learners in a multitude of disciplines.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Opening a door is a skill you have to learn.[/quote]

For starters, after the accident, Stan defined each step in the process he’d have to go through to adjust to life after his spinal cord injury. He says his “first goal was to see if this new world could even work. Because you have to learn just the bare essentials of life.”

Planning out how to tackle any project this way is a major first step on the way to success, whether in school, on the job, or during a game—and it’s an example of a crucial cognitive learning skill called executive function, which includes the ability to control one’s behavior and emotional responses, resist desires, and exercise self-control and discipline. Executive function experts like researcher Adele Diamond suggest that it is “a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ.”

Clawson didn’t analyze his approach, or read up on executive function to figure out how to exist post-injury. He merely felt an internal compulsion to set some goals. First things first: he knew he had to tackle physical balance. He had to learn how to negotiate life with a new center of gravity. Next: how to use a wheelchair.

“Which seems like a no-brainer,” Clawson says, “but the thing people don’t understand is, with my level of paralysis, I only have my upper abs, so balance is compromised to a certain extent. I don’t have the abdominal strength to be able to do a lot. I have to use my arms to sort of, you know, right myself, stabilize myself,” he says. And as far as learning to use a wheelchair goes, there’s a learning curve that most people don’t think about, Clawson says:

“You have to learn how to roll up a ramp. You have to learn how to roll down a ramp. You have to learn when you’re rolling down a ramp to stop, turn sideways so that you can pause on a decline. Or roll up, turn sideways, and pause on an incline. These are all skills you have to learn. Opening a door is a skill you have to learn.”

And then, he says, you have to learn “how to do all these things with groceries, or books, or something on your lap.” Getting into and out of the wheelchair—or transferring, as it’s called—was also a new skill:

“They give you a transfer board, and when you’re first learning how to even just transfer, it’s like, you transfer to the board. That’s step one. You slide across the board—that’s step two. You slide onto the surface that you will inevitably end up on, that’s step three, and then you remove the board, and you’ve done kind of like a three-step process.”

Adds Stan:

“It was frustrating. I remember waking up—this would have been maybe six weeks after my initial injury, maybe a week out of the hospital—and knowing that in the morning, I’d have to get up. And that takes a lot of time, because I’m still learning. So then you get into your chair. You go into the bathroom, you go to the bathroom. You have to learn how to do [both]. You transfer to the toilet, using the transfer board. Then you transfer back off of the toilet, to your chair, using the transfer board. Then you go to the shower, you transfer into the shower. You shower. You transfer out of the shower. You roll back to the bed. You transfer back onto the bed. You dress. It’s about an hour to two hours every morning when you’re first learning. And you have to do that every single day.”

***

When Clawson tells the story of his recovery, he doesn’t use the word “loss,” or imply any kind of regret about how his future veered in a radically different direction after the accident. He talks about setting goals. About the physical tasks that were in front of him in those first days, weeks, months, and years after the injury.

As he speaks, it’s clear that Stan Clawson is full of what the psychologist and former educator Angela Lee Duckworth refers to as grit.

“Grit,” she writes, “is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” It turns out that this quality is another one of those very important predictors of achievement—for spinal cord patients, kids learning algebra, couples saving for retirement, and people at any age learning to read.

Grit is perseverance and stamina and is even more crucial for success than talent or inborn ability. In a way, that’s great news, though having grit doesn’t necessarily make learning any easier. In fact, it may be quite the opposite—being willing to stick to one’s goals even when they’re difficult to achieve is kind of the point. Duckworth says that recognizing failure as a temporary (not permanent) situation is among grit’s most significant tenets.

“It was exhausting,” Stan says about learning to execute the tasks of daily life post-injury, which he describes as being the hardest work he’s ever done in his life. “I would have to nap every afternoon because I was just emotionally and physically exhausted. But I knew that I would get to a point where I could do things quickly, because I saw my [mobility] mentors zipping around, transferring in and out of their chairs. So I could look at them and go, ‘Oh, that’s where I’ll be some day.’”

This sort of thinking is heralded by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Stanford University and one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation. Her work has inspired Duckworth and is closely related to her work, though Dweck focuses on what she calls “learning mindsets.” She identifies two ways in which people experience their own abilities. The first is a “fixed mindset, in which people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits. They believe that talent alone creates success—without effort.” The flipside—or what we might as well call the Stan Clawson outlook on life—is what Dweck has deemed a “growth mindset,” in which “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”

This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. In the growth mindset, Dweck writes, learners trust their ability to learn new skills—which Clawson started to do while he was still in the hospital. “As soon as it became easier to transfer and roll and dress, I decided I needed to start setting my sights higher—to the activities I did prior to my injury... and some new ones.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]’Where we’re going,’ the men told me, ‘you’re not going to need the wheelchair.’[/quote]

“I think the first fun thing I did,” Stan says, “was boogie boarding. I went down to California. My grandfather actually towed me out into the water, because I’m not going to be able to break through the waves to get out there, so he towed me out, he turned me around, I waited for a wave and I rode the wave in. And I was like, This is great! I can do this!

“After that,” Clawson says, “it was hand cycling. And I checked that one off my list. And then it was snow skiing. And I checked that one off my list. And then I learned to water ski. You get to a point where you’re like, What else do I want to do?

Diving was at the top of his list. “The reason scuba diving was so attractive to me, was because you don’t need a wheelchair to scuba dive,” Stan says, “That’s the first thing. It’s freeing. It’s absolutely freeing. [Unlike on land], you don’t need any adaptive equipment, other than, obviously a tank, you know, a buoyancy compensator and respirator.” The same adaptive equipment that everyone uses underwater.

The fact that Clawson never saw himself as being particularly athletic—and still doesn't—reveals he’s been in a growth mindset his whole life. “There are people who do sports,” Stan says, “and there are people who do them well. Before his accident, Stan rock climbed, but he wasn’t a die-hard about it. “Rock climbing is just kind of a thing I did every once in a while. It was fun… Though,” he says, with his trademark dry sense of humor, “I clearly didn’t rock climb well. God, I mean, I fell 49 feet, right?”

“But with scuba diving, I just did it. It seemed natural.” He fell in love with diving the very first time he went out, off the coast of mainland Belize in the Ambergris Key. In the middle of the open water, the dive master handed Clawson a small shark. Though Clawson had of course expected to see a few fish here and there, he wasn’t prepared for the gorgeous, teeming marine life he encountered. Holding a shark in his hands connected him to the sport of diving in a very visceral way. The weight of the creature caused him to “sink a little bit. It wanted get out. It was like a cat that didn’t want to be held… But you get handed a shark, you take it, right?”

Grit and learning mindsets are still far from being understood, and both Dweck and Duckworth admit they aren’t entirely sure how to instill these crucial skills into learners of any age—not even the young students first being taught how to read, who might benefit from these learning processes the most. But Clawson’s attitude on that first dive—that if you get handed something frightening, slippery, and nearly impossible to grasp, you just go with it and hold on—is key to the whole endeavor. When learning something new, try to break up your task into manageable pieces as best you can, but in the end, you just have to trust that you’ll reach your goal if you stick to it.

After he held that shark, Clawson went diving more than a dozen times, and has plans for many more. His most memorable excursion occurred when a dive master he’d hired to take him out with a group drove them through a jungle, where they parked in front of a treacherous stone staircase, perhaps a foot wide at the most. Suddenly, he says, the group picked Clawson up and carried him, abandoning his wheelchair by the car:

“‘Where we’re going,’ the men told me, ‘you’re not going to need the chair.’ So they take me down, and we climb down into this giant hole in the ground, and there’s a pond down there. And you know, it’s the jungle all around us. And they hook me up with gear, get everything set up, they take me over to the water, I transfer into the water, and we dive. And we sink down into this pond, and it’s dark. And then you go down, and then you go through this little tunnel, and then all of a sudden it opens up into this gigantic cavern. And there are just these beams of light coming through all the little openings from the surface—like skylights into this underwater world. And it is so clear, and it is so beautiful. And there is no current. And literally: You feel like you are flying.”

Stan Clawson holds a shark at 12:40.

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