Purls of Wisdom
A dear friend is a skilled knitter. She’s shown me beautiful works-in-process and finished projects: socks, sweaters, vests, blankets.
Despite the beauty of her creations and her passion for knitting I had no interest in learning. But that changed last weekend. I spent some time with a young woman who’s been teaching herself to knit. She’s progressed from beginner to intermediate in just a few months. My skilled knitter friend was delighted to mentor the newbie. The two knitters were engrossed in conversation using terms I didn’t understand. Their patterns and skeins are written in codes I cannot decipher. Another non-knitter and I listened intently as the two knitters discussed yarns, needles, stitches, and projects.
By the end of the visit, I wanted to learn. Why now? What was the tipping point? What are the implications for me as a teacher?
Enthusiasm is a powerful motivator. Listening to the animated and enthusiastic conversation between the knitters was powerful evidence that knitting is a great hobby. They spoke of how knitting soothes and relaxes them. Yet they also touted the intellectual stimulation knitting provides. The wide variety of colors, yarn types, and patterns promotes creativity and individuality. I felt like I was missing out on something wonderful by not being a knitter. Teachers need to leverage the power of enthusiasm. A teacher’s passion for the subject is important. But I think peer interest can be more powerful because students can more easily relate to peers. Teachers can leverage that power by bringing in former students at the beginning of the term. Prior students can share what they learned, provide encouragement, and give practical advice.
Experts are intimidating. My friend’s work is complicated and high caliber. It’s hard to imagine myself with those skills. That’s not her fault. She’s always very encouraging, like most teachers. But our students often lack confidence. Or they may have a fixed mindset. “I’m not good at math” can just as easily be “I’m not good at needle crafts.” But seeing the newbie’s first projects and discovering how quickly she’s improved suggests knitting isn’t impossible to learn. Teachers help students by sharing specific examples of how and what they’ll learn. Be explicit about how the process is scaffolded to help students learn. This will help students see themselves as successful learners.
Too much information is daunting. When I look at yarns, I see yarns. When an experienced knitter looks at them she sees a range of possibilities. I don’t know enough to be able to visualize knitwear from a ball of yarn. The multitude of choices in color, weight and type overwhelms me. I don’t know how long before I will be able to see the possibilities the skeins represent. This is why savvy yarn shops sell kits and showcase finished projects. Teachers should do the same. Start simply. Break content into smaller chunks. Share examples of good work. Hold off on more advanced details until the basics are mastered.
Flipping has limits. I mentioned that I might sign up for a knitting lesson. My friend assured me that wasn’t necessary. She is right. There are many “learn to knit” videos on YouTube. Knitting basics (casting on & off, knit and purl stitches) can definitely be learned by watching videos. It’s possible, but it’s not easy. I had to keep pausing the video. Mimicking the hand, finger and yarn movements was trickier than a quick watch of the tutorial suggested. Experts make everything seem “easy.” Teachers need to remember that videos are not a substitute for a teacher. What seems clear to the teacher is often murky for students who lack experience.
Learning is hard. It feels awkward. My first attempt ended after three rows. I skipped a stitch in the second row, leaving a big hole. It was ugly. I ripped it out and started again. The second attempt was only slightly better. I felt discouraged.
It’s more fun to learn with a friend. My daughter and I are learning together. When I didn’t understand the video, she helped me. She’s been monitoring my progress and giving helpful advice. (She is advancing much more quickly.) Teachers should be intentional about helping students establish connections with each other. Novices have recent memories of the tricky spots. Peers can encourage when the work is challenging. They can also provide critical feedback (You really need to rip that and start over Mom). Students can share in others’ success too (Nice job, that looks really good!).
I think teachers should routinely learn something new and challenging (outside the comfort zone). It’s a valuable reminder of what students experience regularly. It’s increased my empathy when students are confused after watching one of my “perfectly clear” videos online.
I watched a knitting tutorial and imagined I would immediately start knitting as quickly and accurately as the person on the screen. Students do the same with screencasts and teacher lectures. They take notes and listen intently, thinking “yes, this makes sense.” Then they try to replicate the lesson for homework only to realize it wasn’t clear at all. The ease with which the expert demonstrates suggests it “should” be easy or straightforward right away.
Watching an expert masks the extensive practice, effort, and struggle that was endured to develop the expertise. Learners, like knitters, need lots of opportunities to practice. Practice should sometimes be for the sake of learning not for points (like knitting with cheap acrylic yarn for the sake of mastering technique, not creating an heirloom). Most of all, students need to be reminded frequently that learning is hard, messy and uneven (like my first stitches).
Now where did I put my knitting….