On Learning

Okay, I know I said I would write a followup of the functions of spoons, but I just don’t have the steam right now.  It will come later.  I want to address another topic I have been thinking about recently: the learning of craft.

When I was a boy I remember seeing commercials that claimed they would teach you to play the piano in just a few hours.  I remember being amazed, and a bit skeptical.  Skeptical because my older brother loved piano and he would come home from school, practice the piano for 4 hours until dinner, eat, then practice 2 more hours until bed time.  In his room he would either read books on music theory or compose.  It was his life.  So to see somebody learn to play on a couple hours was amazing.  The funny thing is it works.  For one song.

You see, the program would teach you to play one or two songs in a short amount of time.  You could go on and learn another tune, and another that way.  I am sure you see the problem though; there is no real understanding of the music being developed.  There is a great little video about this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UABqrdBll1c

With the great outpouring of ‘How to’ videos on You Tube there has been a great resurgence in this type of learning, especially as related to craft. People watch a video, perhaps even take a class or ask some questions of experts, then they go out and make a new video.  Some of them even claim to be ‘experts’ at the craft because they can create product turns out well.  Some may not say they are experts outright, but a ‘Hey look at how well I do!’ attitude can come across as feigning being an expert. Now, I want to note, I think the interest in traditional craft that is re-surging is fantastic.  There needs to be more craft and more traditional skill sharing and developing.  For it to be high quality skill sharing there also needs to be the realization that however skilled you believe you are at the moment, if you have not spent hundreds or thousands of hours at the craft, then you are no expert.  There are no short-cuts.  Let me explain why.

Learning a craft consists of several parts.  Most people begin with the most visible and that is the product.  How to make___  How to do____.  It is a wonderful place to start.  As you learn, you develop and refine the product you also learn the next part that can only come through experience -the process.  One of the things that separates an expert from someone inexpert is the process.  Is their process efficient?  Does their process allow them to replicate or to make changes at will?  The process is about control over the product. The third type of learning only comes through both creating craft and using the craft that you create AND by using similar craft that others, preferably recognized experts, create: performance.  I recently made a spoon.  It was a good spoon.  The shape was aesthetically pleasing, it had good hand and mouth feel and was well balanced.  I ate a few meals with it before giving it to a friend.  I decided as I used it that I would never use that bowl shape again because when I eat I use the rounded front of the bowl to scoop food.  This spoon was too pointed at the tip of the bowl.  The point made it less efficient than other shapes.  I had gained new knowledge of the performance of my spoon by using it.  I had also compared it to the efficiency of other spoons by other makers.  It was literally compared to hundreds of other spoons over the course of many hours of eating with wooden spoons.

This is the kind of learning that cannot be faked.  This is also the kind of learning that comes out under a highly qualified instructor.  They can tell you not only what works, but why it works. They can help you refine your process to make it more efficient.  They can use your product with you (yes, put the spoon in their mouth…just wash it) and tell you how it can be improved.  They often have craft from other makers so that you can compare yours by eye, by hand and by mouth (spoons) so that you can compare your work without having to invest the same hundreds or thousands of dollars in other makers that they have.

Even after a course, there is no short cut.  You have to make, and make again and compare and compare again.  The closest thing there would be to a shortcut would be an apprenticeship.  A constant guiding hand to help you understand the work as you create.  There is some interesting work beginning to happen in the area of apprenticeships and traditional craft. Jarrod Stonedahl has written a bit about it on his blog.  You will have to scroll back and find it, but the whole blog is worth reading: http://woodspirithandcraft.com/blog/

Many that become expert in a craft also learn something related that does not always translate directly into better product (although it can).  That is the history of the craft.  They will know not only a general history, but where a specific style developed.  They will have theories as to why that style was ideal to that group of people, how their daily life impacted the craft and how the craft influenced their life.  It is this last part that truly makes a craft come alive.  When you participate in a craft, really, truly, authentically you become a part of the history.  You become a torchbearer. If you try to take the shortcuts you short circuit the heritage of the craft.

Let me be clear here to end:  I am no expert spoon carver.  I once thought I was, but the more I have learned, the more I realize I have far, far to go to understand everything it takes to be an expert.  That is part of the journey though, and really, it is part of the joy too.

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