After binge-watching episodes of The Great Pottery Throw Down, I decided to learn how to throw pottery on a wheel. I have no prior pottery knowledge, poor hand-eye coordination, and little manual dexterity.
But I was determined to learn.
I hesitantly walked into my first class, overwhelmed with anxiety and apprehension. I was in a world that contained no screens, no written material to reference. Just me, nine other future potters, an instructor, and some clay.
For 90 minutes, I watched the instructor demonstrate how to use the wheel. With little effort, she centered clay, opened it, formed a beautiful cylinder, and then wired off a functional mug. Then she did it again. Then she asked if we had questions.
I had many. But I didn’t ask. Where would I even begin to ask?
I sat at my wheel to replicate her instructions. And I could recall nothing. Nothing. With nine other people in class diligently working their way to well-shaped mugs, I couldn’t bear the weight of raising my hand for assistance. Plus, what would I ask? How do I do all the steps? Please explain from the beginning.
I worked quietly on my wheel, trying to remember which hand went where. The class moved on to the next steps without me. I couldn’t perform because I hadn’t mastered the first steps.
My pottery class can inform the learning future we choose. Do we load up content for people to consume and let them figure it out? Or do we provide the structure and support to help them succeed?
While we can all learn independently, organizations can’t risk the time and expense of leaving learning to chance. We need to create learning experiences that provide the support learners need.
I signed up for another pottery class at a different studio a year later. Again, I experienced anxiety as I walked into the space. There I was again with future-potters, an instructor, and some clay.
This time the instructor sat me down at the wheel. With clay in my hand, she described the steps, one at a time as I completed them. At the end of 90 minutes, I held something resembling a cylinder. And I had questions. Questions I felt safe to ask.
So, what was the difference between the two pottery experiences?
The second experience had four elements we all need to succeed in learning:
As we learn, we need to feel a sense of safety. We can create that safety by developing a connection between the learner and the instructor. The instructor, whether in person, virtual, or asynchronous, can create an environment where the learner feels valued and supported.
We can create a social environment with our learning peers to provide connection and perspective. We are social creatures who improve our learning when we can “bounce ideas off” others.
Connection removes our anxiety. Connection allows us to ask questions and even take risks. Connection is vital for learning.
To learn we need to DO the things we are learning. Watching and listening will provide knowledge about something, but nothing can substitute performing the task we want to achieve. Would you like a phlebotomist to draw your blood, having only read about it in a book or watched a video?
To move information to long-term memory and make it accessible, we must retrieve what we learn. We must get it out of our heads to keep it in our heads. We must practice the task we just witnessed. We must talk about it. We must use it. We must do the thing again.
Before and after we learn, we need to rest. In a world overwhelmed with content and learning opportunities, pausing for a break, getting a good night’s sleep, or just stepping away from a screen can be tricky. But rest is necessary for learning and performance. Short lessons will always produce more success than longer lessons.
Our learning future will provide a multitude of options for consuming information. The need for connection, practice, retrieval, and rest will be in our learning future, no matter what else the future holds. Our human brains are complex and spectacular. But we are, after all, still human.