Some Thoughts on Learning

I’ve been taking a drawing class this winter and it got me to thinking about learning. It dawned on me that it’s really difficult to teach yourself something with books or online videos unless you already know the basics.

For example, if you’ve trained in Tai Chi and know not just a form, but why you move certain ways, you can watch a video of a master instructor and get some insight. You can probably even teach yourself a new form that way.

But until you have a good grounding in the basics, videos are not going to make sense. You need to learn the basics from someone who knows them and can guide you past the errors that most beginners make.

Until your body has integrated those basics, you aren’t going to know how to interpret the things you see in a video.

In a lot of cases — particularly if you are learning to do something physical — such classes need to be in person with hands-on instruction.

In drawing class this week we were working on drawing negative space, because you need to understand negative space to see things the way an artist does. I was trying to do it, but the teacher came by and said, “You’re drawing the chair, not the negative space.” She showed me a couple of things and I was able to shift what I was doing.

I can’t exactly explain what shifted, either, because some of what I am learning is not the sort of thing that is easily put into words. It is instead the sort of thing you learn by watching and trying and getting just the right kind of correction.

When it comes to drawing — and we won’t even get into painting or sculpture or other visual arts — I don’t have enough grammar and vocabulary and comprehension of the basics to figure out what else I need to know. Having a good teacher is gradually giving me those basics.

A friend of mine recommended some online video classes, but she’s been doing art of various kinds for some time. I don’t think I know enough yet to pick up much that way. Once I have more grounding, I’ll look into that.

When it comes to physical movement, though, I have a lot of core knowledge, learning that is baked into my body, so I can pick up something new from various places. For example, some months back I was having a lot of pain in my right hip.

I read an article about someone in England who taught people how to walk. In reading the article, I was able to get the gist of her theory and apply it using my own understanding. Turned out I was standing slightly crooked and shifting too much of my weight to the right hip.

I paid close attention to it when walking and when doing Tai Chi, and my hip got much better.

I could show you what I did, but I don’t think I can describe it in words that would make sense to people without my background.

This is why I only want to teach self defense classes in person and hands on, which obviously got tricky due to the pandemic.

It’s hard to teach or learn physical skills except in person, but once you have a thorough grounding in the basics, you can learn new things in many different ways.

Some fields don’t require in-person classes. You can learn the core skills of writing as long as you have a teacher who can look at your work and provide you with corrections and commentary. That’s still hands-on teaching of basics, though. You still have a guide.

My mother did not believe in classes in home economics. “Anyone who can read can learn to cook and sew,” she used to tell me.

And in truth, I learned to cook with a combination of cookbooks and trial and error. Of course, I was also highly motivated — I like to eat — and had watched people cook and helped a little as a child.

I have done some sewing in the past, but it occurs to me that I would have done more of it — and might now be able to make a few things that I’d really like — if I’d had some classes and more thoroughly understood sewing machines and various techniques.

Reading is, of course, vital for learning many things. You can’t really learn to write unless you read a lot. And you get more out of what you read if you either write about it or discuss it with others.

I’ve been reading so long that I cannot remember not being able to, but I know some people struggle with it. It is not automatic. Teaching is required. There are basics that make it easier.

Whatever it is you want to do, find a good teacher who can give you a thorough grounding in the basics. After that, you can probably find your own path and even throw out some of what you’ve learned.

But you need to know how something works before you can figure out which pieces you need and which ones you don’t.

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