Learning to Unlearn

Posted in spinning, toddler by tchemgrrl on January 29, 2013

There’s this concept in educational psychology that sometimes an apparent backsliding of abilities is actually linked to having taken a big step forward in understanding the conceptual framework behind the thing you’ve been doing. (There’s even a word for it, which I wish I could fish out of my head.)

Over the weekend, Toddler apparently figured out a general rule of plurals–that you can add an S to the word and then it means more than one. (I even tried the Wug Test, which he passed after a few minutes of thinking about it.)

If English wasn’t so darn complicated, he’d be done with plurals.

The only reason I noticed this developmental leap is that last night, while brushing his teeth, he looked in the mirror and pointed into his mouth. “One, two, three, foh tooth-es. Five tooths. Teeth-es. Mommy, five tooth-es?”

My brain just about imploded with developmental geekdom.

The most interesting thing, to me, was that he tried not only “tooths” but “teeths”. Which means that he already knows the correct plural of “tooth”. A week ago, he would have used the word “teeth” grammatically. This week, teeth-es. A mistake, but a mistake that lays out the workings in his head really clearly, and shows that he just learned a rule that will apply to about 95% of the nouns he’ll use. Before, he had separately memorized tooth/teeth and cup/cups and dog/dogs and deer/deer and box/boxes and spoon/spoons and all of the other nouns he knows. Knowing that there’s one rule and a few exceptions is easier to remember in the long run, but now he’s got to learn the exceptions all over again.


This being, in theory, a fiber-arts blog, I’m thinking about the ways this hooks into things I’ve seen from folks learning to spin. I think the important takeaway is this: Our brains love rules, but rules often fail us in unexpected ways.

For example: a person learns one way of putting twist into fiber to make yarn and posts a video that only demonstrates that way of doing it. Beginning spinners get that far, try it, get the idea, but then come up against various limitations of that technique (a few examples: denseness of final yarn, inability to spin thinner, being comparatively slow and unwieldy, and the fact that the technique only works for top or batts, not any carded preps like roving or rolags that can’t be stripped in the same way.)

In order to get over those obstacles, the beginning spinner needs to develop the ability to draft while there’s already twist coming at them, which is a hugely more flexible technique. Getting the hang of dealing with active twist is related to figuring out a whole bunch of spinning things–it’s the equivalent of figuring out that most plurals consist of the base word with an “s” on the end. But the first attempts, like “teeth-es”, are probably going to be more wobbly than keeping drafting and twist insertion as totally separate entities.

Grownups don’t get to spend as much time in the “beginner’s mind”, and often have a really hard time trusting in the fact that the short-term setback in quality will lead to a longer-term gain in overall ability.

Another example: The last time I remember hitting on a fiber-related stumbling block like this was when I got my charkha and started spinning cotton. The leap to one-handed double-drafting was pretty ugly, but it meant that I could spin cotton WAY faster, and led to being able to draft wool faster on a flyer wheel, in spite of the fact that I still can’t reliably do one-handed double-drafting with wool on the flyer wheel. But my brain and hands somehow translated SOMETHING from one to the other.

Anything that you’re unlearning in your life now?


4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. fillyjonk said, on January 29, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    I will have to think about how this relates to my cyclical struggles in learning to play the piano. (Though I’ll have to tease that out from the periodic struggles arising from what may be the onset of some early arthritis in my hands, ugh.)

  2. tchemgrrl said, on January 30, 2013 at 10:58 am

    It’s tough because I think the breakthroughs you go through as an adult are more subtle. Dabbling with the guitar, I can sort of see one on the horizon which is the difference between picking out the individual notes and just having your hands make an F# chord or whatever–I imagine it’d be similar on the piano. The kinds of mistakes you’d make there would be different, but they’d be different because you’re paying more attention to the music than your hands.

  3. CAHemmerich said, on March 6, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    unlearning . . . how to teach! Got all learned-up at college about how to teach little ‘uns, at big public schools or little private schools, using institutional methods and federally-determined standards, with a focus on CYA and the requisite good record keeping. Now, we do still CYA and keep great records to satisfy the state, but I have to re-learn exactly what it is that we are shooting for, here. What IS true learning, how does it occur, how do you best nurture it, how to you best measure progress . . . it is so, so very different. Rules and formulas just do not apply as they once seemed to.
    Fun thoughts there, T!

  4. tchemgrrl said, on March 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Oh, yeah, translating school to real world is a biggie. I teach a couple of 3-day hands-on workshops about science techniques to folks at work. A lot of it is saying “Yeah, it makes no sense in the book, because they’re trying to explain something that works but is not interesting enough to get a grad student to do their thesis on it. See how nice it comes out, in spite of how dumb it sounds?”

    And of course, there’s the fact that kids don’t read parenting (or teaching) manuals. In aggregate, they sort of do, but one-on-one, the way you see them at home, no way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: