Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks

I’ve always been a sponge when it comes to learning. Since I was in my twenties, I have either taught myself or learned how to do the following: code basic HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (although those skills are a bit rusty), edit video, make soap, sew, make jewelry, crochet, knit, write screenplays, use most of the programs in Adobe Creative Cloud, and let’s not forget how to use WordPress, among other things. I perform these tasks with varying levels of expertise and even wildly differing frequencies. The point I’m trying to make here is that, yes, I DO think it’s possible to teach even an old dog (or an old bitch, if we want to use the technical term) like me a thing or two.

The process of learning, at least for me, is often one fraught with extreme emotions. In the beginning, when I have no idea what the hell I’m doing, I feel overwhelmed, inadequate-—depressed even-—because the task or skill I’m attempting to master is just so far outside my current skill set. But then, there comes a day when you experience the proverbial “Aha moment” when you suddenly feel confident, euphoric, even, when you realize that you’ve mastered whatever skill you set out to learn. (You will recognize this moment by the sound of angels singing, the Heavens opening up—in short—you’ll be smacked upside the head by your own understanding.) But how, exactly, does one arrive at such a point? 

My grandmother, like many others’ grandmother’s I’m sure,  knew how to sew almost anything. Her stint as a seamstress in a garment factory in her youth gave her the skills to make shirts for my grandpa, a teepee for us kids, she could even whip up a perfectly lovable corduroy teddy bear seemingly blindfolded. Even as a kid I envied this talent. Taking all these disparate bits (fabric, thread, buttons, stuffing) and turning them into something useful or beloved is akin to magic in my eyes. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to do that? I could never understand how my mother, as a young girl, hadn’t sat at her mother’s elbow for hours on end trying to store away every bit of sewing knowledge my grandmother possessed. Sadly, like my mom, I missed this opportunity, too.

After I became a mother myself, I vowed to learn how to turn a discarded bed sheet into something my young daughter would want to wear with pride. I got there. Eventually. That’s not to say that my learning journey was a smooth one. There are enough ugly skirts, doll clothes and false-starts in my fabric box to prove that trial-and-error is my modus operandi. Mistakes are so useful when it comes to learning. Every time I screw something up and have to reach for the seam ripper I’ve learned a valuable lesson: Don’t do that again.

All this is to say that despite my not knowing how to do X, I’ve developed some faith in my aptitude to muddle through and eventually learn, if not master, X after some sustained effort however frustrating that process might turn out to be. Which brings me to my current learning journey. Learning how people learn. Yeah, you read that right.

Right now I’m sitting in the cafe outside the J. Paul Leonard Library on the SFSU campus, where I’m in my first semester as a graduate student. I’m pursuing my Masters degree in Education, with a focus on Instructional Technologies. It’s the second week of classes and, so far, I’m in the “overwhelmed and inadequate, slightly depressed” stage I mentioned earlier. The question I keep asking myself is how long will it be until I get to the “confident, euphoric, mastery” stage?

I’m hoping that as I progress through this program I will have learned how it is I learn best, how my children learn best, to see if it’s possible to minimize the front-end frustration of the process. Maybe it’s possible to accelerate onto the freeway of knowledge, like in a cognitive Tesla, instead of scrambling barefoot up a rocky hillside. If there’s a shortcut to getting to the “feel good” part of learning, I want to find it.

For now, I guess it’s back to the grind. I’ve got a proposal paper due on Friday (yep, that’s tomorrow) for my Needs Assessment Class and, right now—to continue the metaphor from above—I can’t find my shoes or my car keys at the moment. And even if I could find my keys they belong to a 10-year-old, falling-apart Prius, not a Tesla. Dang. This is gonna be a rough ride.

P.S. The irony isn’t lost on me that I’m delaying the writing of my proposal paper (procrastinating) by writing this post on a blog designed to kick my procrastination habit of daily writing. It bloweth (blows-eth?) the mind. Let’s hope this exercise, plus the caffeinated latte I just drank, served to “prime the pump”, as it were. Feeling hopeful.

Update:  Caffeine is a powerful drug. It might have been 2:30 am when I completed my paper, while all three children slept peacefully, but I finished it. And even though it’s just a draft, I think it’s pretty damn good.