learning takes time & mastery even longer

Post & photo by Kylie Budge.

There’s nothing quite like being a student again, if only briefly. It’s a good thing to do from time to time. For example, it helps us get perspective and reminds us of what it feels like to be a learner. It also helps us remember what it feels like to know very little about something and the immense frustration that can accompany trying to learn something that isn’t quite making sense. It can also remind us of how students’ expectations can impact on their learning experience.

I was a student briefly for a week recently when I participated in a weaving trip to a remote indigenous community in North-East Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory, Australia). It should be noted that I was a complete novice – I had no background or experience in weaving at all prior to this trip. Yet, as an adult, I had expectations about what I could learn in such a short time and what I hoped I could produce. In hindsight these expectations were unrealistic and reflect the kind of learner I am – big picture, grand expectations, and someone who wants to learn and master an area quickly (and hopefully painlessly).

In short, I hoped to be able to produce a beautifully woven bag/basket by the end of the week (and if I’m honest I hoped to make two – both exquisitely beautiful of course!). Quite ridiculous expectations when you remember I entered the week with no previous weaving experience.

And so while I loved sitting, watching, learning and weaving each day with the local weavers, who are masters of their art, I experienced frustration as a learner because I wanted it all fast. I didn’t want to be making clumsy (and ugly) beginner pieces. I wanted to skip ahead and produce the kind of wonderful end products that the master weavers in the community were making. At the time I was so focussed on the final product that this stopped me from being able to learn.

On the flight home I thought about my week as a learner and what this might mean for teaching.

1. students often come to our courses with big, sometimes very skewed expectations about what they can achieve in a short period of time. We need to remind them of the time it takes to master an area and (in most cases) the extensive practice and experience required before they can work at a quality level. And that learning can be frustrating.

2. it sounds clichéd, but the learning journey is life-long. Our students need to know this and we need to find ways to communicate this in a compassionate way.

3. hanging onto unrealistic expectations might mean that students miss out on other stuff that’s important to learning. We can be so blinded by what it is we want, or what is it we want to be able to do that we miss opportunities to learn and to see things from a different perspective. In that learning blind spot there is often something really interesting waiting to be discovered.

What ultimately helped me through the week was the patience and compassion of the weaving teachers, women who have developed their skill and expertise from many, many hours of practice and effort. They patiently watched me fumble awkwardly through my beginning weaving moments and provided support and advice on how to approach the work in different ways. They didn’t expect me to be an expert in a week and they were able to communicate this with subtle words and gestures. Through this interaction I could see their compassion for the novice that I am. Their good humour also helped to lighten my mood and thankfully, towards the end of the week I was able to get some perspective. This, coupled with the supportive atmosphere generated by my fellow weaving students really worked in helping me see that a week is a very short time to master a skill which others have spent a lifetime practicing and perfecting. Sometimes, just being a student again for a brief time can help to remind us of how things like expectations can impact on the learning experience of our students. As an adult it’s also a humbling act to be a student again. And sometimes we all need a reminder of what if feels like to not know very much about something.

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