Sewing Rags and Par-Baked Bread: Learning Methods in the Knowledge Economy

Helping others to learn is not always easy. There are many challenges and obstacles. Two obstacles are worth discussing--because they are actually pretty easy to solve.

Obstacle One. You can't learn Skill X without some material or content on which to apply it, and developing the content takes even more skill.
  • You can't sew a garment if you don't know the stitches. But if you don't know the stitches, your garment will be a mess. So you basically can't start--or you can only start by failing.
  • You can't write a screenplay without having a story. So your first screenplay will be terrible, because even if you can write it well, the content will be poor.
  • You can't give a good presentation without a good topic. Even if your slides and organization were great, weak content would sink you.

Obstacle Two. What you're teaching is a process, and the first part of the process is the hardest. It would be easier to start with a later step in the process. But you can't do that step until you've done the earlier, harder steps.
  • Kneading the dough correctly is probably the hardest part. But it's fairly early in the bread-baking process. So by the time you get to the easy part, your work is already inedible.
  • Configuring the software that lives on web servers can be complex, whereas using the same software after the configuration is actually pretty easy. So you can't get to the easy part until you do the super-difficult part.
The solution in both cases involves scaffolding. If you watch a building being built, you'll notice that in order to get at the building, the workers need to be at the right level. It's hard to stand in mid-air while applying the stone or whatnot. So builders create scaffolding all around the building. This makes it easier to get to the right level and place so you can do your work.

Scaffolding in learning is the same thing. You break down what needs to be learned into small enough steps so that each can be mastered progressively.

But "scaffolding" is general. To learn to create scaffolding requires...scaffolding. So specific methods or approaches to scaffolding would be useful, and this blog post offers two. (I make no assumptions about how many methods there are: so I am not implying any 'ontology' of scaffolding.)

Solution One: Sewing Rags. If you ever learned to sew--even just a tiny bit--you know that you don't start making a suit, sewing in a jacket lining, or sewing in the zipper. These things are hard.

Indeed, when you start, you're really not good at anything. You can't really make much of a garment. You need to practice the basic stitches.

For this, beginners sometimes just take some old rags and start sewing them.

In short, sometimes the content doesn't matter. You can start with any indifferent content.
  • You can't write a screenplay without having a story--so the solution is to start by giving the budding writer an existing story. This method was good enough for Homer, Sophocles and Shakespeare, all of whom adapted existing successful plots.
  • If you can't give a good presentation without a good topic, just give the budding presenter a good topic. This way the learner can practice the skill without needing to invent all the content.
After working with good content, the learner is ready to originate the content, since then she had a better idea of what "good" means. This used to be called "apprenticeship."
  • Artists worked in others' studios.
  • Playwrights began as actors.
  • Beginning craftsmen did the easier more boring part of the task for more advanced practitioners.

Solution Two: Par-Baked Bread. You've probably seen this. It's more common now than it used to be. The hardest part of bread must be kneading it and getting it to rise. I always found the kneading part difficult: no matter what I did, I don't think I needed it right, because the bread didn't develop the right texture.

Now in almost every supermarket you can find bread that is par-baked. This means it's baked most of the way--more than 50%. All that's left for you, the consumer, is to bake the bread the rest of the way. You're really just toasting the outside so it's crisp and has a nice brown color. At the same time, the inside of the bread gets warm and steamy. (Okay, I'm getting hungry now.)

The point is: the last bit of baking is the easiest. You can therefore learn a little bit about baking bread by just doing that last step.

This doesn't help you with the harder steps, but it gets you started and motivates you to keep learning.

In short, just because you want to learn something doesn't mean you must start at the beginning. If the beginning is the hardest part, you definitely don't want to start there. Indeed, figuring out what to skip over and what not to do yourself can be crucial to success in learning.

A knowledge economy demands that everyone be good at sharing knowledge. The distinction between teacher and learner used to be a question of profession. But in the knowledge economy, the distinction between teacher and learner is a temporary role we play. In the knowledge economy, everyone must be both teacher and learner at different moments.

In the past, a number of disciplines competed to say what teachers should do: instructional design, educational psychology, cognitive psychology, etc. Theories are very nice. But when everyone is both teaching and learning, we need prototypical instances of demonstrated effectiveness that can be replicated the way we replicate recipes and sewing patterns and other practical arts.

In the knowledge economy, there is still a place for science, but there is a still greater place for craft of learning as a practical (which is to say: inductive) art.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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