I really wanted to write this article on the stages of learning. Partly because it has surprised me how consistently the patterns of learning stay the same, no matter how different the subjects are. I have learned a lot of new things in my life, and each time there are stages to the learning, that once recognized become comforting. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
There are three stages, which are mostly linear, although at times you can slide back and forth from one to another. The first stage is the “Left handed fork” stage, where the learning is clumsy, slow and frustrating, like trying to eat with your left hand. This is when you are most likely to get discouraged. If you are not talented in an area, or if what you are learning is completely foreign, this stage can be quite extensive. I doubt anyone enjoys this stage, but it is necessary to get to the later ones.
The second stage is “Confidence”, when the learning is getting enjoyable. Think when a kid is learning to ride a bike and starts screaming “I got it, I’m really doing it.” For more complicated learning tasks, like learning a computer, it’s when you have a framework to in your head to plug the new information into. If you have natural talent or some familiarity in an area, you can slide into this stage almost immediately. This is where the real enjoyment begins. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the most fun stage, making learning addictive. This is when you start “playing” with what you are learning.
The final stage is “Imbedded”, when you no longer have to think about it the subject you are learning, like putting your fork back in your right hand. In a really complicated subject, this stage is not clear cut. If you only use computer programs once in awhile, you may have to fool around with them a bit to remind yourself how they work, but the actions of using the computer are imbedded in you. If the subject isn’t that interesting or necessary, this is where a loss of interest or boredom could set in.
Of course, once you are no longer a child, it is easier to stay in imbedded areas, or only add areas you have confidence in. You have to be able to tolerate embarrassment to stray into those left hand fork areas. Nowadays the world is changing so fast that those who refuse to start learning again get left behind. Sometimes the burning desire to reach a goal carries you though the difficulty. For example, I have no talent with math. All during school I never got into the confident stage. My knitting and weaving requires math for proper sizing of projects, and I love making things from scratch. That requires quite a bit of math and that goal carried me though the practice it took to get good enough at it. I still make more mistakes than many others might.
Learning karate is what really keyed me into thinking about learning. It tapped into some of my private bugaboos. Growing up, I had no natural inclinations for any kind of athletics. I was a slow learner at things like swimming and skating, I had terrible large motor skills, and excellent small motor ones. I never had any motivation to improve my athletic skills, so I treated most athletic things as something to endure. The one exception was riding a bike. As slow as I was to learn it, it was transportation, and that motivated me to get past the first clumsy stage, then I loved it. If I only could have seen then the pattern of finding enjoyment of something, once past those early stages, I might have tried some more things that I have waited till more recently to try. With karate, the way I was taught showed me some insight into learning, and how to motivate and get past the early difficulties.
Some of the ways to I’ve found to get past left handed fork stage:
- Break a larger skill into smaller and simpler stages to allow a better sense of mastery and less discouragement.
- Encouragement by those involved. Strong discouragement of any amount of teasing or disparagement.
- Take breaks, don’t try to go too fast. If you are getting frustrated, go back to some part you’ve already mastered and play with that.
I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to go try something new. Accept the fact that you will look like a fool at first, and won’t be any good at it. Keep in the habit of having something in the “left handed fork” stage in your life so you won’t be thrown by it when there is something you have to learn. Know that all these things become sources of joy as you master them.