Tag Archives: learning

Learning by doing

There are some things you can really only learn by doing them. The process of doing something when you really don’t know how to do it tends to feel exposed. In the beginning, you may be awful, which can be off-putting and might be very uncomfortable. How will people react?

Sometimes very experienced writers of essays, short stories and articles can jump straight into novel writing and make it work. For most people, the first novel is a hot mess you hide and never speak of. Until you’ve tried to write one, it’s hard to grasp what it takes to write a novel, and just how many ideas you need to make it to 60k words – which is short by book standards. It’s not until you try and write a book that you can really get to grips with how pacing works, and character arcs and themes. There’s a lot you can learn from reading, but it’s not the same as doing.

Playing music or singing with people when you aren’t working from a written composition brings similar issues. You can learn to play your instrument, you can learn songs, and there’s a great deal of theory that can be handy for this, if it suits how you think. You can only learn how to play by ear by doing it. You can only learn to sing with other people, or to join in by improvising, by doing it, and you have to do it with other people.

There are things about being on stage and interacting with an audience that you can only learn by experiencing it. This also applies to giving talks, being on panels and being interviewed. There are a lot of things you can learn by observation, but in order to learn how to navigate yourself through this sort of thing, you need practice.

This is why it is so important to have safe spaces where people can have a go. If the only spaces you can find are for professional people who already know how to do these things, there’s no scope for anyone else to advance to that level. Accessible, grass roots spaces where people feel welcome and supported as they learn, are absolutely essential. The only way we get people who are great at these things is if we support them while they aren’t great. No one comes fully fledged into their creative powers, everyone has to spend time learning and making mistakes.

If you’re an organiser, this is something you can factor in by creating opportunities. If you’re an audience member, your willingness to be kind and supportive is hugely important. Mocking people and knocking them down will stop people from becoming all that they could be. Kindness, support and encouragement helps people grow and develop. Often the single biggest issue for people putting their stuff out is confidence – nerves can mangle performances or stop people showing up. Help people build their confidence and you help them become all that they can be. 

It may be tempting to think that surviving setbacks and hard knocks is a good way of weeding out the wimps and only getting the really committed performers. This isn’t how it works. Confidence and determination don’t have any relationship with quality. I’ve seen some really confident people doing terrible things in public places and no amount of negative feedback will slow them down. It’s the more sensitive people, the gentler people, the ones already knocked around who suffer most from being put down. Those qualities are good qualities in a creator, and might be worth more than the ability to disregard all criticism. People learn a lot when you can tell them what you like about what they do.

You can’t get this wrong

I am by nature a worrier. I suspect I’m more inclined to take responsibility for things than is good for me, and too slow to ask people to up their game when it might be better to do that. There are always new things to learn. There’s so much around interaction between people that is informed by each person’s individual history, expectation, assumption and so much that we can improve with simple approaches to taking care of each other. So, this is a post about mutual care and support.

I had a remarkable lesson around this recently. I was exploring something where I felt out of my depth, and one of the people I was exploring with said ‘You can’t get this wrong.’ It was a liberating and empowering moment. I’m perpetually anxious about getting things wrong, and being offered space where that explicitly could not be an issue was really powerful for me.

I’ve held this kind of space for other people in singing workshops. There’s a chanting technique I like to open with where there is truly no way of messing up. I know how reassuring that is to hear – you can’t get it wrong, and how that kind of safety creates space to explore and experiment. It’s impossible to learn without feeling you have at least some space to safely make mistakes, and no one should be pushed straight into unfamiliar things where they have to get right first time things they have no experience of.

While hearing that you are in a space where it is safe to make mistakes is good, the idea of not being able to get things wrong brings up something deeper. It’s a validation that whatever comes from you is good and welcome. Even if that only applies to a specific situation, that reassurance can still be really effective. Humans can be judgy creatures and many of us are wired to fear humiliation or anything that might compromise us socially. Most of us need social validation and affirmation that we are good enough. 

‘You can’t get this wrong’ turns out to be the most powerful affirmation I have ever heard. Unlike far too many of the affirmations I’ve run into, it doesn’t push my inadequacy buttons or make me feel like I’m being lied to. It is of course vital to only use it when it’s honestly true, because telling someone they can’t get it wrong and then deciding that they have got it wrong would be a devastating judgement.

I will be looking for opportunities to use this idea. Sometimes it might need a little framing. So long as you do X – where X is easy and doable – you can’t get this wrong. If you’re making an altar, so long as it’s physically safe, there’s no way of getting it wrong. You can’t get prayer wrong. You can’t get communing with nature wrong because all you have to do is try and there you are, doing it.

All too often it can seem like the struggle inherent in something proves its worth, your worth, your seriousness and devotion. I’m going to be giving a lot more attention to looking for things it isn’t possible to get wrong, and hopefully I’ll be back to talk about this in more depth around specified opportunities to not mess up.

Druidry – how to learn

The internet is full of resources a student of Druidry can use, to broaden their knowledge of Druidry both historical and contemporary. There are courses you can pay for and teachers who will guide you and when you’re starting out, that can be hard to make sense of. Not all Druidry is the same – there are many different styles and flavours out there. Not all of those are going to suit you and you may not be lucky enough to land exactly where you need to be at the start – not least because at the outset you likely don’t know what your kind of Druidry is.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes. This is a key thing for all kinds of learning. You don’t have to utterly invest in the first things you encounter – and if you do, it’s also fine to change your mind about that and move on. If you try things and they don’t work out for you, that’s not a failure on your part. It also doesn’t mean that Druidry itself is not for you, you’re just in the wrong bit of the woods at this point.

Give yourself permission to change your mind. Be open to being excited about things but don’t feel like you have to take up residence there forever. What works for you right now might not work at all in a year or two, and that’s not a problem. We change, we grow, our needs shift and so what we do has to adapt to that. 

No doubt the most difficult thing you might face around this is the possibility of having been wrong about something. The first things you encounter are likely to shape your ideas of what Druidry is, and not all Druid content is created equal. If you have run into fantasy takes on the Celts, or something laced with bigotry, or appropriation from other cultures, you might be in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that you’ve been doing it wrong. Druidry is generally non-dogmatic and inclusive of many approaches, but we’re not free from issues and it is so easy, in all innocence, to pick up some of that. 

Getting caught up in something dodgy is not a measure of you. The key thing is what you decide to do if it is suggested to you that you’re engaged with something problematic. The right answer here is to listen, read, learn – be open to what you’re hearing about the problems and scrutinise them. Listen to the people who are affected by things you didn’t realise were a problem. Be willing to change.

If what you are doing harms no one, then it’s your business, or it is between you and your Gods. If you’ve unwittingly entered into something harmful, that’s always going to be uncomfortable. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re young in our craft. Like a lot of people, I’ve got crystals of unknown provenance I bought when I didn’t know any better, and as a teenager I had one of those cheap, rip-off dream catchers. The key to proceeding with honour is to be able to own that kind of thing and act accordingly. Alongside this it is important to educate each other without shaming anyone for not having known, and to give each other opportunities to do better rather than knocking each other down.

Playing for misfits

I remember as a small child being taught by my grandmother how to play with a cat. She explained that it wasn’t about winning, that if the cat couldn’t get the string the cat would get bored and not want to play. I think this was my first explicit lesson in why cooperation is better than competition. 

There isn’t much fun to be had in winning against a cat. In learning to cooperate in this kind of play, I learned how to get the most delight out of a bit of string.

Looking back I note that it was one of the few instances of an adult explaining to me what the rules were for a specific sort of playing. As a child, I struggled with playing, which caused me a lot of social problems at school. I had no idea how any of it was supposed to work. I wanted to explore and experiment, and to learn how to do things. I liked imagining stuff, but the kind of communal imaginative role play games that children go in for made no sense to me.

When my son was a child, I got to revisit all of this. I still had no idea how to make certain kinds of play happen. Coming to it as an adult and a parent turned out to be as bewildering and uncomfortable as it had been as a child, only with extra layers of responsibility.

It may seem like an odd thing for a writer to feel, but as a child I did not want to play pretend games. As a teen playing role play games, where the rules are clearly defined, I was comfortable enough. I don’t think unstructured pretend play is actually that unstructured, it’s just that the rules are never explicit, and are intertwined with social standing and confidence. Some children are allowed to make the rules of the game, and change the rules of the game at will. Some are not. I was always in that second category with little grasp of how this first group got its power.

Writing is not like a make believe game. I get to make the rules. Even when I’m collaborating, I get a vote on how things work. It’s not like school where you can be stuck, day after day with people who will punish you – socially or physically – if you don’t play the games the way they want. These days I can at least vote with my feet if I need to.

How we play, who is allowed to play, who decides on the game – these things are all socially informed. How much of that do we learn unconsciously from our environments? Or in my case, fail to learn. We assume that play itself is intrinsic to children, but much of it did not come naturally to me and I doubt I am alone. How we play is part of how we learn, and this all has huge implications.

Making Mistakes

We all make mistakes. Having the freedom to make mistakes is essential to learning, growing, studying, creating and exploring. We hold spaces where people can develop if we allow them to mess up with no fear of blame or shame. It’s not a good idea to make people responsible for anything important when they have yet to learn how things work!

Admitting mistakes can feel painful. However, it’s a really good thing to be able to do. Being able to appreciate someone taking the time to correct and inform you is a blessing. Being able to own errors so as to know more and do better is enabling. 

Humiliating knock backs teach people not to take risks. It can be especially hard on children, who learn not to voice their opinions, and not to try things. If you require people to be perfect, most of them will never even dare to have a try. No one does things perfectly from the outset. It has to be ok to be wrong, inept, ineffective, inaccurate and so forth when you start out.

However, for this to be possible, it helps to have that treated supportively by others. It’s not good to humiliate people for not knowing things. It’s best to assume ignorance rather than malice – especially when you’re seeing errors for the first time. It is totally possible to correct someone without knocking them down – and if it’s done with respect, then the person being corrected is more likely to want to take the new information onboard.

It’s also worth asking whether a person is wrong, or simply different. Is there a right answer there? Is there only one acceptable way of doing things? Might there be reasons for what you’re seeing? Who actually knows what’s going on here? If you’re in a situation where you only have a superficial grasp of things, it’s well worth being alert to the possibility that you might be the one who needs to learn. Are you making assumptions about the other person based on race, gender presentation, age, class, disability or apparent education level? Take a moment to consider those assumptions if you have them. 

If it turns out that you’ve tried to correct someone who knew more than you, then you get to go round this loop from the other side. Will you be gracious in the lesson, or will you double down? We all make mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with making an innocent mistake because you didn’t have the right information. It’s what we do next that really defines who we are.

Learning and criticism

The conventional wisdom is that to learn, you have to be open to robust criticism. I’ve been teaching various kinds of creative and spiritual things for a good twenty years now, and I’m increasingly convinced that the criticism approach doesn’t work that well.

What does work, is drawing people’s attention to their own successes. Tell someone what they do especially well, or what makes their work stand out. Tell them what you like about what they do, or where you can see progress. 

People who intend to learn and grow are often really harsh critics of their own work. They mostly don’t need other people to pick holes in it as well. If you’re in a position of being able to offer feedback, praising the stuff that works is really useful. It boosts and encourages the person, and you can learn a lot from hearing about what you are doing well. Criticism, on the other hand, can be demoralising, and if it doesn’t come with solid feedback about how to improve, it might not help a person in the slightest.

It is easier to rubbish someone than to lift them. It takes more skill and insight to feedback to a person about their strengths and very little insight to say ‘that’s crap’. Positive feedback boosts the other person, negative feedback does more to assert the authority and superiority of the person making the criticism. The idea that you have to be able to take harsh criticism to survive as a creative person can push out gentler and more sensitive people. 

The people who can take brutal criticism are often the ones who pay no attention to it. People not interested in learning from others or convinced that they have no need to develop can deal with harsh feedback by simply ignoring it. As a consequence, harsh criticism can mean selecting for people who ignore feedback at the expense of the people who genuinely wanted to learn and improve.

Unsolicited criticism can be really counterproductive, even when you’re in a teaching role. It can come across as asserting dominance and it can be more about the teacher’s ego than their being useful. Critical feedback is best given when it’s actually sought. If someone says ‘I’m not happy with this but I don’t know how to fix it’ that’s the time to come in and talk about what, technically can be improved on, and how. It’s also worth noting that if you don’t know how to improve something, you aren’t especially well qualified to comment on how good it is.

It’s also important when teaching or feeding back to recognise the difference between whether or not you like something and whether or not it is good. All too often, unsolicited harsh criticism is just people asserting that they don’t like a thing. Maybe it wasn’t made for you. It’s ok not to like a thing, but always worth thinking carefully about whether the person who created it needs to hear about that. Good critical feedback tells a person how to do a better job of the things they were doing. Useless feedback tells them that you wanted them to do something else. If you aren’t supporting a person to be themself, you aren’t supporting them at all.

Learning and Punishment

When young children get things wrong, it is because they don’t know better. The younger the child, the more obvious this should be. They may not grasp the cause and effect issues. They may have been curious, or bored – both of which are innocent conditions. If a small child messes up, they need educating, not punishing. 

At some point, a person becomes capable of malice and deliberate cruelty. But what if we saw this primarily as an education problem, not a reason for punishment? I have no qualms about the idea of using short, sharp interventions to reduce the amount of harm or danger in a situation, (better you do something unpleasant than they tease the dog until it bites them, for example) but on the whole, what is punishing a child really about?

Are we punishing them for not having understood why something was important? Should it be their responsibility if they haven’t grasped why something matters?

Punishment has more to do with asserting authority and teaching obedience than it has to do with helping a person learn, grow and do better. Children will tend to respond to arbitrary authority either by increasing their resistance to it, or by hiding better. Punishment leads to fear and/or resentment. A child who has ‘learned’ to behave through punishment is likely to have learned about what to hide to survive, but they won’t necessarily think there’s any other value in what they’ve learned.

I think much the same is true of adults. Punishment does not discourage people from committing crime. Education and opportunity are far more effective on this score. If people don’t understand their rights and responsibilities, locking them up won’t fix that. Punishment doesn’t restore anything to the victim, either. It doesn’t actually achieve much for anyone and it has a high financial and social cost. What punishment does allow, be that at home or in a society, is for some people to have power over other people. Punishment has much more to do with the assertion of power and the reinforcing of hierarchies than it does with solving problems or fixing behaviour.

Punishment teaches that the person with the most power in a situation can dish out punishment on their own terms. The person with the least power is the person it will be easiest to punish. The rich and powerful are often very good at avoiding punishment, while any crime punishable by a fine was only ever intended to hurt poor people. What punishment leads to is the understanding that having power is more important than being right, or good. This does nothing to tackle crimes motivated by desperation. It also fuels the kind of crime that is driven by the desire to have power over others.

Teaching Cats

In the last six months or so I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the impossibility of teaching or training cats. You certainly can’t train a cat the way you would a dog. However, cats learn all the time, and there’s a lot to be learned from that process.

We often underestimate the impact of our own expectations. If we think a cat can’t learn we won’t try and engage with them in that way. It’s worth watching out for the limitations you may unconsciously impose on cats, yourself and other humans.

Cats learn from their environments. They learn how things work, they pick up a fair few human words. Cats are interested in their own comfort, amusement and wellbeing, and will tend to do the things that please them. They respond to discipline with resentment, a perverse desire to do more of the thing they aren’t supposed to do, or if they get sufficiently unhappy, they leave. Attention can be a reward, and we forget that a lot, in our own interactions and around how we raise children. Attention can reinforce behaviour we don’t want if we’re dealing with a being who is hungry for attention. Those of us with abuse backgrounds can have really problematic relationships with attention, too.

Cats are most likely to learn what you want them to learn if they are happy, and have a vested interest. Mr Anderson has learned to walk on a lead because he likes going out and having adventures, and going out is conditional to being on a lead. Once out, it is in his interests to be cooperative because he has a nicer time if we’re all pottering around together. Cats respond well to positive feedback, verbal praise, affection, treats and so forth. Reinforce the behaviour you want to see by giving the cat more of what they want, and the cat will learn how to milk that for all it’s worth. Everyone wins.

It is easier to coax a cat round to a different behaviour with lures and treats than it is to get them to stop doing something they thought was interesting. This tends to be true for people as well.

Cats are never going to do your bidding. They can however learn to be cooperative members of your household. I think there’s a lot of similarity between raising kittens and children. Yes, you can focus on obedience. Yes, you can frighten them into doing and not doing things. No, they will not be happy, and they will get out and stay away as soon as they can. When teaching is about living cooperatively, cats can and will learn. When what we mean to teach is that we have all the power over them, most creatures won’t find us tolerable.

Teaching is not about making someone do stuff. Put that idea down, and all manner of things become possible.

Learning to learn

At no point in my life did anyone teach me how to learn. How do you learn a dance routine, or a dance move? How do you learn a piece of music, or spellings for a test? I have some very early memories of being frustrated by not knowing how to do something and just being shown the same thing that hadn’t made sense to me in the first place. I have memories that go from there to my twenties of being expected to learn from having seen something once, or somehow just by magic.

Learning how to learn was something I had to figure out by myself. Without that, you’re limited by what you can do naturally and easily. You’re limited to what’s obvious to you.

Of course it’s tricky because everyone has different things they need to work on, different ways of working, and will learn in different ways. Some of us need theory first before we dive in. Some of us learn best by observing and copying. Some of us need step by step guidance on what to do. And it may well not be the same across all our areas of learning. I’m good at learning patterns of physical movement and I can learn that by watching and copying. I can’t learn a language that way, and I need a lot more technical input to work on my art or music skills.

This is a huge consideration for anyone who makes teaching work part of their Druidry. Students will be different from you. What they want to learn and what you most want to teach won’t always neatly align. How they learn can be varied indeed. How much of a student’s needs can your teaching style accommodate? What do you do when faced with someone who does not know how to learn?

A student who is frustrated and who seems to make no progress can be really annoying to deal with. Quick students who pick up what you say are rewarding to the ego of the teacher, and affirming of your teaching skills. But really it is what happens to the struggling and less overtly talented student that measures you as a teacher. Can you teach them in ways that actually enable them to learn? Can you engage and find out what sort of process they need to take them forwards, rather than hanging on dogmatically to methods and content that suits you?

I remember one Druid teacher presenting me with a meditation that I was to do. It made no emotional sense to me and was at odds with my notions of sacredness to the point of being distressing. No alternatives were offered. It was work I was told I had to do, and not doing it in the way described was, it was made clear to me, disrespectful to my teacher and to my teacher’s teacher. Looking back at that exercise many years later, having studied Druidry with OBOD and done some mentoring myself, I have no doubt that the exercise was the problem and it was totally inappropriate for me, and that this mattered.

There’s quite a challenge in figuring out what you, or anyone else needs to learn in the first place. It’s an important question to ask, and to keep asking. This is not an area of personal growth where it is fair or productive to assume that we all need the same things. What lessons do you need to learn? What tools do you need to be given? What skills do you need to develop? What kind of teaching will help you and what are the best ways for you to engage with your learning?

And to anyone who has struggled with learning, let me say it may not be your fault at all. Good teaching teaches what the student needs, not what the teacher wants to hand out. Good teaching helps you overcome barriers and go beyond whatever innate talent you have. Good teaching enables you to grow and develop on your own terms. If you’ve not had that kind of experience, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn the things, it probably means you need better resources.

Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.