To be, or not to be… a novice

A few months ago (although so much has changed it feels longer) I attended an event at UEL for mentors of PGCE students. The focus was on working with research and it had a profound impact on me. I was introduced to the Chartered College and #WomenEd, the concept of research schools and much more. It reinvigorated my love of research and theory, and prompted me to reflect on some things that were holding me back from being a better mentor and teacher.

One of the ideas I was (re)introduced to was the Dreyfus model.

Lizana Oberholzer (@LO_EduforAll… who organised the UEL event) spoke about this again last night at an @WomenEdLondon LeadMeet. It’s something I’d already been thinking and writing about. New to a role and a school, I’m a novice in many ways at the moment. But as an experienced teacher, I have a big schema to tack new learning on to, so I’m progressing more quickly.

What I want to advocate today is deliberately putting yourself in the place of a novice in a different field pr discipline, specifically to develop greater understanding of the learning journey, and hopefully to be able to support students better.

It’s easy as a subject teacher to forget what it was like to learn, and particularly, to struggle in your subject. So much of what we teach has become automated, tacit knowledge. Sometimes so much so that we forget certain skills and knowledge need to be taught explicitly again and again and again. I know that for me this can sometime lead to frustration or even exasperation when students don’t master some concepts as quickly as we would expect.

When was the last time you felt like a novice at something? Maybe you’ve earned a promotion, and that comes with a steep learning curve. But that’s not entirely what I mean. It’s comfortable not to try new skills or study a new discipline as degree-educated adults with little time on our hands! But I think it’s our duty to put ourselves in our students’ shoes sometimes, and regardless, you’re never too old to learn a new trick.

Recently, I started to learn how to knit again. I have previously given up every time I’ve tried to learn, because it didn’t seem to ‘come naturally’ (which is a topic for a different blog post), and I was taking on overly ambitious projects without learning to master the basics first.

Currently, I’m about two-thirds of the way through quite a simple project. It’s tedious and time-consuming; my project is riddled with visible mistakes. But each corrected mistake is proof of learning. I can see my progress every time I look at it, and I’m motivated to finish because I can see the purpose to it.

Why is my attempt to learn to knit more successful now than previously?

Focus

Firstly, I selected a key focus for learning. I wanted to develop a consistent tension and master a common stitch, ‘moss stitch’, which is actually two stitches alternating. This is probably the equivalent of choosing to teach students how to craft sentences well early on when teaching writing. These stitches are the building blocks of knitting.

Self-concept

Previously, I’d been trying to rush to mastery. I chose overly ambitious projects and became disheartened when I made mistakes. I deliberately chose an ‘easy’ project with much less variation in stitches, that would give me an opportunity to practicse, practise, practise. I changed my ‘self-concept’ to that of a novice.

Mastery-concept

I developed a better idea of what mastery would look and feel like. I studied pictures and videos of the finished project. This meant I was able to spot and look up or ask how to fix errors. The resulting product (though still a work in progress) tells the story of these errors, but more imortantly, it tells the story of the progress I’ve made, much like a student’s exercise book!

In the picture below, you can see a mistake that I carried on making for about 45 minutes of knitting. It was only after I looked at it as a whole and went back to the pattern that I even realised.

Regular practice

Ah, so part of the reason I took up knitting was for something to do on my new, much longer commute. I found after the first week or so that despite all my good intentions I wasn’t ploughing through a novel a week. I wanted something to look at and do with my hands that wasn’t scrolling through twitter. And so, this has meant I get about 30-45 minutes (sometimes more) of practice every day.

So, what will you become a novice at? Perhaps a sport? A craft? Writing a novel?

My advice is: enjoy the learning process, just as we would encourage our students to.

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