Read, do, re-read, do…

“The lesson will be repeated until learned.”  That’s the theme of my recent foray into segmented bowl turning. I just had my third disaster at the lathe (for those that are counting, that’s 3 of the most recent 3 bowl projects) making exactly the same mistake as I’d made the first and second time. Does this qualify me as learning disabled?

I posted a short video in my last blog entry illustrating the problem – I made a heavy cut using a chuck (a device for holding the workpiece on the lathe) intended for light finishing passes. The wood is held on largely by friction against rubber stoppers, and any significant shock will tear the workpiece from the chuck. The first time I made this mistake, the bowl shattered. Episode #2 (in the video) resulted in a gluable crack, but the bowl was saved. Episode #3 (yesterday) was only on a ring segment to a bowl, but the ring was large and thick, spun off directly into my face (yes, I wear a face shield for a reason) before hitting the floor and shattering into 3 pieces. I’m pretty sure I can re-glue the segments without obvious flaws, but that’s yet another side-track on this project.

So why do I keep making the same mistake?  Obviously, the lesson hasn’t sunk in, although I’m hoping the 3rd time is the charm. What has struck me, though, is that all of the bowl turning guides essentially warn against this, and I’ve read them all diligently. Book learning was clearly insufficient to prevent this error, and even repeated experience required, well, repetition.  But now when I go back and re-read the wood turning books, the wisdom in their recommendations makes sense in a way it couldn’t have without these disasters under my belt.

My bible for this project (The Art of Segmented Wood Turning by Malcolm Tibbetts) suggests building up projects from bottom up – true the bottom, glue on a ring, true the ring, repeat.  This keeps the working surface co-planar with the bottom and other rings (as opposed to the method where all the rings are flattened on a sander and glued up in a bunch, as I’ve previously done). I fully intended to use that method on this bowl, but somewhere in my excitement to “keep moving” I decided to flatten the main middle ring separately, and that’s when disaster struck.  Using Tibbetts process, the bowl is very securely chucked with proper fastening – using my “modification”, the ring is only attached with a friction fit, and as I realized in the post-mortem, wouldn’t necessarily be flush against the plane of the chuck, anyway.

Enough of the wood turning technicalities. I’m starting to think about instructional guides and their proper use. I have a colleague who is taking an advanced statistical methods class at Stanford, that on the one hand should be “review” for techniques we’ve all been practicing for years, and on the other is intended to revisit them at a deeper level and highlight some of the essential errors and misconceptions we may be unconsciously carrying forward.  I studied under the same professor and encountered many of the same ideas in my first or second year of graduate school, before I had any real-world experience in statistical modeling. While I could follow his reasoning and nod my head, I didn’t have any context for understanding why these were so important (or just not patently obvious). It wasn’t until I’d been practicing in the field for several years that I saw the seduction of statistical shortcuts or the social pressure to use methods that “everyone else thinks are valid.”  Now I can look over my colleague’s shoulder and have a renewed appreciation for what the professor was trying to impart. This wisdom went over the heads of most of his students, not for lack of ability on the part of student or teacher, but because the students simply hadn’t had the years of experience to deeply appreciate why these concepts were so important.

Experts who write textbooks and instructional manuals have the benefit of hindsight – having traversed the ground and scouted out the best routes, they are ready to provide a trail map to the uninitiated. And this is a reasonable approach based in a desire to be efficient – a student should not have to repeat years and years of trial-and-error that the original researchers encountered on the way to enlightenment. My experience as both a self-taught and instructor-taught guitarist has confirmed what a friend once remarked: you can teach yourself the guitar, but you’ll progress 10 times faster if you have a good teacher.  I’m not dismissing the value of instruction.

However, there is an issue of timeliness – when is a student ready to benefit from instruction? I don’t believe this is a linear sequence – my experience with the bowls shows that reading, practicing, re-reading, practicing, etc., seems to be a proper rhythm. This is the basis of what educators call the spiral curriculum – ideas are re-presented cyclically in a deeper and more integrated fashion as the student progresses in his or her learning. So I first learn about chucking wood on the lathe by reading about devices – screw chucks, face plates, 4-jaw chucks, and the like.  I also learn some basic safety rules for using them. Then I go off and work, and eventually violate one of the rules.  Wham!  Wham! Wham! Three disasters later, I’m ready to go back and re-read what each of these chucks can be used for, and in particular I’m highly motivated to understand their limitations.

At a macro-scale, our education system is not well-suited for the read – practice – re-read cycle. Some of this is due to simple age constraints – if we decide that kids can’t do much useful outside of school for their formative years, perhaps we’d better keep them constantly supervised in “productive” learning environments (not that I’m agreeing or disagreeing with this sentiment – just reporting what I observe). But for adolescents and early adults this argument starts to make less sense. Why go through four straight years of undergraduate work when people are still trying to figure out “what works” for them dispositionally, intellectually, and avocationally?  Why not attend, say, a year or two of “foundational” higher education, and then go work for a while, and then come back and continue education when one has proper practical insight and motivation?  Again, I fully understand the practical constraints – it’s hard to interrupt one’s work/career to go back to school full time, there are financial constraints, wouldn’t we just prolong a period of delayed adolescence, etc.  But our current system of 4 continuous years essentially force-feeds a wonderfully rich meal to youth, and hopes that they’ll be able to digest the bulk of it over time, such that years later, they’ll look back and appreciate the value of what they were exposed to, even if they couldn’t fully fathom it at the time.

Just a thought… I wrote a few more paragraphs about the origins of higher education in the US, but then erased them. I was going too far afield for a single posting. For now I’ll just let this basic idea cycle through the back of my mind – the dynamic of reading/doing (and for many, the third leg is “teaching”). Read/do/teach/do/read/do/teach/do….  Time to re-read and repair my bowl and try again.


2 thoughts on “Read, do, re-read, do…

  1. A thought-provoking post. It makes me think of apprenticeship…I wonder how they would talk about the learning process? When you have the teacher next to you, perhaps the cycle looks different from when you’re self-taught? So interesting, thinking about learning this way…


    • Yes, there are lots of learning scenarios (apprenticeship, playground play, etc.) with characteristic rhythms of watching/listening/practicing/feedback/teaching. If I were an apprentice bowl turner the master would have come up and smacked me in the back of the head as soon as s/he saw what I was trying to do. Or maybe s/he would have let me fail – that decision point (to intervene or let things happen) is one of those thousands of choices a master teacher makes.

      I know what wouldn’t have happened: I wouldn’t have been handed a textbook on the first day of work, told to read it, take a test on it, been certified on the basis of that text, and turned loose in the shop.

      I assume you’ve read Lave & Wenger’s work on situated learning? The “apprenticeship” model is a widely discussed paradigm in “West Coat” cognitive science circles.


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