Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges in learning new technology – getting acquainted with Twitter, figuring out those “circles” in Google +, entering a virtual world for the first time, building a wiki site, or starting a blog. In my work, I have the good fortune to occupy a front row seat for many “first” sessions with technology and have observed a few intriguing patterns along the way.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the willingness to experiment varies widely among people. Some people are rule followers – they will only venture a click when you suggest it. Others are rogues – they click everywhere, just to see what happens. Some learn as they go, others seem to learn best by looking in the rear view mirror (after they’ve completed a task or executed a new skill). I offer these descriptions as extremes, to make the point, obviously there are many shades of grey in between. But you knew that.
I’m continually amazed by how many times people really don’t hear what is said. For example, I will explain how something works and, literally, a minute later they will ask me a question about the thing I just explained. I think that people hear when they are ready to listen, when they need the information you are offering. As a teacher, I’ve tried to attune myself to that and time the introduction of new information to the point of need. That’s not as easy as it sounds.
What have I noticed about the learners who seem to retain the knowledge and process it well? They all seem to possess a patience with themselves – a willingness to be in a non-expert place – and a recognizable curiosity about the road ahead. How does this work? How could I make use of it? What are others doing? Why is this relevant?
And what have I noticed about what impedes learning? For some people it’s the opposite of the factor I just mentioned (that patience with being a non-expert thing). They think they know how to do something, forge ahead, only to find that it doesn’t work that way, and then they are frustrated. People who have a need/desire to show you that they know, that they are an expert, or that this new skill is precisely like something they’ve already mastered. Typically what happens in those situations is they think they’ve got it, don’t listen (or process what’s been said), and then get tripped by a missing piece.
But my chief insight about all of this came from my teenaged son who is learning to drive this summer. He’s been through driver’s ed class and has logged about 15 hours in the car with us, learning the basics. I would say that he is now a fairly competent, if inexperienced, driver on the residential streets of our neighborhood. The other day, as he was driving into town, I noticed that he took the most direct route (by way of a number of annoying traffic lights), rather than opting for a more turn-laden, short-cut method that I regularly take into town. Since he’s been a passenger in our car, riding along on that path for the last eight years, I assumed he would also take the short-cut. But he didn’t. New insight: just because someone’s been a passenger on a learning path, it doesn’t mean that they’ve absorbed the information. But here’s the other gem. As he drove past the short-cut option, I pointed it out and said that we usually go that way to avoid those annoying traffic signals ahead and get into town faster. And here’s what he said back to me, “You know, I’m not confident enough yet to be annoyed and improvise.”
And that’s just it. Learning requires some improvisation, some risk taking, some exploration and experimentation. And that means being in an uncomfortable place of not knowing or getting lost. And that takes confidence. When you’re feeling confident (sure of yourself, certain you will get this, comfortable with wandering a bit), I suspect you’re far more willing to improvise. And sometimes, the willingness to improvise can come from a surprising place – annoyance over not knowing. Irritation over how long something is taking. Pure and simple exasperation and the desire to do it better.