Learning Something New: Always a Challenge

Credit: iStock.com/YakobchukOlena
Credit: iStock.com/YakobchukOlena
I’m the midst of trying to learn a knitting technique and discovering how easily I forget what I know about learning. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences, but what I really want us to remember is how new learning experiences challenge students more intensely than they affect seasoned learning professionals, like college teachers.

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I’m the midst of trying to learn a knitting technique and discovering how easily I forget what I know about learning. Perhaps you’ve had similar experiences, but what I really want us to remember is how new learning experiences challenge students more intensely than they affect seasoned learning professionals, like college teachers.

I should have learned this technique years ago. Why have I avoided it for so long? Why don’t we learn what we need to know? For me and most students I suspect, it’s the fear of failure—that nagging worry that maybe I won’t be able to learn it and the humiliation that will accompany failure.

Work-arounds also prevent learning. They provide the perfect reason to avoid it. You end up finding another way to do what needs to be done. In my case, I’ve devised a way to knit with two colors using one hand, which sounds fine but isn’t. Like most work-arounds, my technique takes longer and lacks the efficiency of the proper approach.

Who or what could help with what I’m learning? I have options: ask someone who knows how, take a class and be taught by an expert, watch YouTube videos, or read a book. What motivated me for this project was a book that made me think I can learn it. Truth be told, I always go with books. I like to learn alone—figure it out for myself and feel that sense of accomplishment when I do. But sometimes I can’t figure it out and need to ask, which I’m reluctant to do for a lousy reason: I might look stupid, especially if I ask an expert.

Is it bad to routinely go with books or any other preferred approach? Not terribly, so long as there’s recognition that other ways to learn exist, that my way doesn’t work for everyone, and that every now and then, it may just be that something other than my preferred approach would better accomplish the learning task.

Who want to be a beginner? It’s so much nicer being an expert. I have knit with my right hand for years. The needle flashes in, the right finger wraps the yarn and pulls, and the stitch jumps onto the next needle. I love the rhythm. I can knit and do other things at the same time—talk, listen to the radio, plan my next project, and think about life. But if I put the yarn in my left hand, all that expertise evaporates. I’m clumsy, awkward, and slow; I drop stitches, wrap the yarn backward, and end up with knitting like that on the infamous beginner scarf.

How much practice will it take before I can do it well? Apparently lots, but not all at once. Despite what I know and have written about spaced practice, I sat down one evening, determined to master left-handed knitting until bedtime. After one frustrating hour, the yarn and the needles sailed across the room, and I went to bed. I’m a morning person, and things did go better in the morning. They started going much better when I decided to do two rows per session and do them several times during the day.

The amount of practice it takes to master the new skill (or concept, for that matter) varies. Sometimes it’s hours; sometimes it’s years. My attempts to identify all the trees on our property—that’s going to take years at my current pace. Your savvy as a learner is not a function of how quickly you learn but of your willingness to persist until you’ve got it.

When can I do it my way? Not until I can do the task the way it is supposed to be done—not with another clumsy work-around that achieves the outcome without finesse. I need to perform with some degree of ease and precision before I put my signature on the skill. Doing it my way is one of the rewards that comes with truly mastering a skill.

Acquiring a new skill can result in three-dimensional learning. You learn the skill. You can learn more about learning if you pay attention to the process. And you can discover more about what kind of learner you are and have the potential to be. For learners of every age, that makes new learning a process always worth pursuing.