Learning Insecurities

I recently read a piece by Lisa Shroyer in Interweave called Lisa’s List: 7 Insecurities all Knitters Have.” She describes a woman sitting next to her at a brioche class (a stitch technique, not the bread). The woman called herself a terrible knitter. Shroyer refutes that claim, identifying general learning insecurities of knitters. Several points clearly connect to academic learning.

“Tight knitting” can be reframed as “tight learning.” Novice learners are tense. There are numerous, simultaneous details requiring attention.  Tight knitting and learning goes with fear of mistakes, unwillingness to take learning risks, and an unwillingness to share or collaborate from fear of appearing foolish. To reduce tightness, ask students to remember what it was like to learn how to ride a bike. Words like tense, wobbly, and a little scary will come to mind. With practice, confidence grows and tension eases. Let’s remind students that learning starts wobbly but gains fluency with experience, training and practice.

Knitting an “ugly sweater” is akin to bombing an exam. Mistakes happen. Under-estimating the challenge, investing too little time or effort, and overestimating ability are part of being a novice. It’s not possible to learn without producing a few clunkers along the way. Shroyer puts it this way: “We’re all bad at things before we’re good at them. It’s how the universe works.”  

Consider offering more frequent exams.  Test early in the term to provide feedback to students sooner.  Provide strategies for students to learn from a poor performance.

Odd color combinations and mismatched pattern – yarn combinations are a variation on the “ugly sweater.” Learners need a safe place to experiment, to put concepts together and discover first hand what does and doesn’t work. The delete button and old fashioned erasers are tangible reminders: mistakes happen. Fortunately, they can help us learn. Since mistakes are bound to occur, teachers need to provide opportunities for them to happen in low-stakes situations.

“I’m not good enough / It looks too hard.” What learner hasn’t experienced feelings of doubt and inadequacy? When I feel this way, I remember encouragement my mother gave me through this analogy. If you are standing still and watch cars whizzing by on the highway, it’s intimidating. It’s easy to wonder how on earth we’ll ever be able to navigate that route. The answer: enter the ramp, increase speed, and merge. Once you’re in the flow it’s not so scary.  Teachers can be explicit about the ramp, the systematic increase in skills/knowledge/background that help students build up speed, accuracy and ability.  What seemed scary or impossible at the start of the course can be broken into segments, allowing for concepts and understanding to (e)merge. 

“My technique is weird / I knit slowly.” These concerns stem from peer comparisons. Unless technique is critical, as in medical or technical disciplines, differences in approach, style, and method should be expected and perhaps encouraged. Refrain from comparing students. Incorporate analogies like the tortoise and hare.  Discuss the ways learning is more like a marathon than a sprint. Not every runner has the same technique. Finishing well can be more meaningful than finishing first.

“I never finish anything.” Students often overemphasize product. Process is important too.  Sometimes I knit for the sake of knitting- it relaxes me. Other times I am focused on producing a garment I am anxious to wear. To help students attend to process, provide explicit examples of the steps of learning. Provide opportunities for students to discover how much their understanding of complex concepts has increased over time.

Learning is hard, but it doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Effective teachers consider content and affect. When we address common student fears we promote an environment where cognitive energy focuses on the challenges inherent to learning content, instead of unproductive insecurities.


Brioche Cowl. Persistence pays off!  Not perfect, but a big improvement from last year.




About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on September 21, 2017, in Learning, Students, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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