Some thoughts on learning together

Most of what I’ve learned about both cooking and woodworking I’ve learned on my own, from books, from the internet, occasionally from television, and from experimentation. There’s been a lot of what I’d not uncharitably call hacking. Much of it has worked. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of direct instruction, and by direct I mean in-person, physical instruction. There are questions you can’t ask of a book and answers you can’t get without physical presence.

Here’s an example. I learned to cut pretty good dovetails by watching Roy Underhill on television and reading his books, and then by practicing. But when he opened his Woodwright’s School I jumped at the chance to take a basic joinery class, because by then, fifteen years into my haphazard and frequently interrupted pursuit of hand-tool woodworking, I had a pretty good sense of what I wasn’t figuring out on my own. I knew how the tools worked, what the process was, and what the result should look like, and I could replicate all that decently, but something was missing.

So I took a class on what I supposedly already knew how to do. When Roy stopped by the bench to check on my progress, I knew what I wanted to know: How do you stand in relation to the work? Where do your feet go and where do they point? How can I best use my hands and fingers to guide the chisel when I’m paring? It’s elementary stuff, the kind of thing you get on day one in a face-to-face class or an apprenticeship, but it’s hard to see on video and harder to interpret from books. As I said last week about the difficulty of learning from cookbooks, this isn’t a limitation of the authors or directors, but of the medium. Woodworking is a physical craft; you learn it best from physical presence! While it can be reduced to a process, a procedure, an algorithm, doing so… reduces it. The physical, bodily aspect is lost, and the bodily aspect, of course, is the one that matters most.

Anyway, I got what I needed from that class. What I had been doing sort of jangled around, getting decent results but never feeling right and eventually stalling on a plateau; now my work slipped into a groove where I could keep improving. I’ve made a few adjustments since, but they’re gradual improvements or experiments from a solid foundation. I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

What to do about that is the question, and I don’t know how to answer it, except to say more community. (I was going to say that I can’t imagine how traditional woodworking could have been revived without technologically mediated communication — television, internet, radio maybe not so much. But of course if we didn’t have technologically mediated communication, we might still have something more like traditional community in which it was easier to work together, literally together. So I was imagining our society as it presently is without some of the things that made it what it is but that also provide us a means of navigating it, which is nightmarishly dystopian but not very realistic. So never mind that.)

Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading “Learning and the immediacy of correction”

Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating

A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.

Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs. Continue reading “Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating”

In defense of false expectations

Last spring — I’m late blogging this — the Guardian reported on a study finding that literature for very young children frequently reinforces a materialist, consumerist bias… but that other literature deters that bias. Books, in other words, and the ideas in books, shape their readers, particularly young readers. Hardly a new idea, but one perhaps too easily ignored. The problem is what an author ought to do with that knowledge — or a parent. As Alan Jacobs observed at the time, every book potentially wants us to want something, which is not bad in itself, but we ought to consider what it wants us to want. Jacobs quotes C. S. Lewis’ lament that the fairy tale “is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in” when, on the contrary, it’s “school stories,” the allegedly realistic ones, that give false expectations. “All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible,” Lewis argued in “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, “in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.”

But I wonder whether those “school stories” are more important than Lewis realized. Continue reading “In defense of false expectations”

Area man still not eating his veggies

Despite pleading and prodding from the feds, kids still won’t eat their veggies. A New York school district has decided to forgo federal funding for school lunches because of complaints about mandated smaller portion sizes and because new rules requiring kids to be served fruits and vegetables was resulting in massive waste:

The school district has decided to not participate in the National School Lunch program, saying recent changes requiring more fruits and vegetables on each tray has resulted in kids throwing the lunches away….

As part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches now must meet strict federal guidelines to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of the rules include: serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offering dark green and deep orange vegetables and legumes every week, using whole grains in half the grains served and reducing salt by 10 percent….

[Superintendent Kay] Salvaggio said in her letter that “our school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and that while kids can take a fruit and a vegetable, they won’t be required to do so. Portion sizes will also increase, a reaction to the reduced amount of food allowed under the new federal guidelines.

This would be news, I guess, except that the USDA has been telling Americans to eat their veggies for ninety-six years, and we haven’t listened yet. Did we really think putting them on kids’ trays unasked would work? (Especially if they look like the vegetables the school cafeteria served when I was a kid?)

The thing is, the USDA knows, or at least claims to know, what makes a successful nutrition education program, and they’ve known since the Second World War. Here’s what the Food and Nutrition Service says such a program must do: Continue reading “Area man still not eating his veggies”

Bluets, adverbs, and education

Originally published in Front Porch Republic.

On a gorgeous April Wednesday I am filling in as substitute homeschool teacher. We do arithmetic; we do a language lesson about adverbs and Emily Dickinson. Then—did I mention the day is gorgeous? that the air through the window is crisp and fills the lungs with hope and delight? that the cardinals are courting round the bay tree and a wren is chirping from the buckthorn? that the sky is blue, the dandelions gold, the violets… er, violet? All this is so, and the substitute teacher, less inspired by whatever lies in the plan book before him than by the season swiftly unfolding outside the window, calls an audible.

“Let’s go for a hike,” I say. Continue reading “Bluets, adverbs, and education”

Keep home economics in the home

In today’s New York Times, Helen Zoe Veit argues that America’s public schools ought to revive the teaching of home economics. That simply isn’t going to happen, not given the state of public school funding, the priorities of education reformers, or the inexorable march towards core curriculum. And that knowledge, frankly, is a relief to me, because I’d be deeply worried about the effect the schools might have on what little there is of American home cooking. By all means, teach children to cook – but not in school. Continue reading “Keep home economics in the home”

Chinese

This morning I was standing in the frozen-foods aisle of the Asia Market, puzzling over which brand of vegetable gyoza I bought last week because the packages all look the same to me and I can’t read Chinese, when the Monkey burst into song. I found this somewhat disconcerting, because she was singing in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese, and I had no idea what she was singing about. Continue reading “Chinese”

Why I don’t like the metric system

For the benefit of Canadians, Jacobins, progressives, engineers, and stuck-up stickybeaks of all stripes, I herein explain why the metric system is inferior to traditional systems of measurement for those who work with their hands, think with their right brains, and prefer not to resort to a calculator for every little thing.

Metric vs. traditional systems

First, I don’t like the term “metric system.” Either it refers only to the meter and ignores all of the other units of measure (which is silly), or it implies that it’s the only system that is metered (which is also silly). What is commonly called the metric system is part of a much larger system of measurement known as the International System, or SI. (The abbreviation is backward because it comes from the French, and they do everything backwards.)

The SI is all decimal, and its units, which include familiar ones like the watt and the second and less-familiar ones like the joule, are all interrelated in a very nice way that I won’t trouble to explain here. (You can read about it here.) It’s a very nice system, for many purposes — but not for all purposes. (I’m unnecessarily familiar with it from having been, at some time late in the last century, a theoretical physicist in training.) Continue reading “Why I don’t like the metric system”