Teaching first- and second-hand knowledge

I’m still ruminating on themes of “practice” and “mastery” I touched on in some previous posts. This blog is starting to serve as a “parking lot” for ideas that I hope to weave together into a more coherent form someday.

I’m not sure what exactly sparked off this latest thought, but I’ve been noticing the distinction between teaching first-hand and second-hand knowledge.  Teaching something we know first-hand is pretty obvious – I can teach a child how to tie a shoelace, or a colleague how to specify a statistical model. I don’t have to draw on external resources to provide the content, although teaching aids (pictures, text books, etc) can help embellish an explanation.

Secondary knowledge is something I don’t have direct experience with, and here it gets interesting.  Most of us adults (who aren’t professional historians) know something of the founding of the United States, the framing of the Constitution, the Revolutionary War, etc.  We can also tell these stories to our children, but how sure are we about the knowledge we’re imparting?  Telling any sort of cultural myth generally entails passing along a story or knowledge that one has not directly experienced; we serve as conduits for a communal story.

Okay, so far no problem – there are things we know directly (and teach/coach) and other things we pass along (such as historical narratives).  Now think of middle school science teachers.  Are they teaching primary or secondary knowledge? It’s an interesting question.  Many are probably generally well-versed in textbook knowledge (they may have even majored in a science), but to what extent have they internalized the knowledge as their own?  I could probably do a decent job of teaching a basic physics class, but I was never really a practicing physicist, and know little beyond the first year college course.  So what would I be doing, other than interpreting/explaining what was already in a text book? What would I add of my own?  And does it matter?

A while back a friend of mine asked me how to get rid of these whitish rings that had appeared on his dining table. I knew I’d read about those in a book on finishing, and sure enough I was able to look it up and respond with a remedy – try mild heat, and perhaps gentle abrasion with steel wool.  But I also warned him that I had never actually tried any of these remedies myself, so couldn’t vouch for them or for unforeseen consequences.  It was an unsatisfying experience.

In a similar vein, I’ve certainly read about wood movement (the tendency of wood to expand and contract along particular dimensions with varying humidity) and how to design for it, but I’ve never actually experienced, say, a panel blowing out of a frame or a drawer getting stuck in its casing.  On the other hand, I’ve both read and experienced what can happen if an off-cut catches the back part of a spinning table saw blade, or what a bowl feels like as it flies off of a lathe and into my face shield. I know that you shouldn’t brake around corners on a fast mountain bike descent, and I know why you shouldn’t do so (having done it and experienced the consequences).

So back to my question: when does it matter that a teacher possesses first-hand, experiential knowledge of a subject, versus largely second-hand, “received wisdom?”  We intuitively prefer the former, and I suspect there are varying degrees of the latter. That is, I was never a math major, but have a reasonable intuition about some aspects of middle- and high-school math.  I certainly know real-number algebra inside-out.  But – although I took a course in abstract algebra as an undergraduate – I know I don’t have the deeper connection to theories of algebras, how systems of domains and operators come together coherently. So I can help a high school freshman struggling with his or her algebra homework, but there are limits to what I can teach.

I’m starting to examine my own balance between first- and second-hand knowledge, both at work and in general life. It’s starting to feel like exploration – we go out and cover some territory, come to know it well, but hear from fellow travelers about what lies over the next hill.  Perhaps we even pass that folklore along to others, along with our own hard-won knowledge of familiar terrain. And we make judgments about risks – the consequences of mis-informing a fellow traveler about the safety of that frozen river, for example, could be catastrophic.

As I wrote, this will become a thread I’ll broaden and deepen; it weaves through a number of areas of my life/experience.


To every thing there is a season…

We’re approaching the end of Daylight Savings Time, which means I’m spending more time with indoor activities in the evening. This includes getting back to semi-regular blogging.

When we last left our hero he was in the midst of training for his first Century ride.  Well, the training went smoothly (with the exception of having my bike stolen a week before the Century ride, necessitating a quick purchase and fitting of a nifty new carbon-frame model), as did the ride itself.  I learned a lot about how my body responds to long rides and about riding a Century in general, and look forward to doing this again. I decided not to tackle another one this year – my knees were starting to bug me by early summer, and the local Century in June was known for its climbs. I did eventually get the knee thing under control (I was climbing too much and at too low a cadence, and my saddle needed to come forward a few smidgeons) and enjoyed a good season on the new bike. My ratio of road bike to mountain bike riding was a lot higher than usual this year – just noting it and moving on.

I had also picked up the guitar again after several years of dormancy and begun taking classes with Carol McComb. And, like riding a bicycle, fingering a guitar is something you never quite forget once it’s in your muscle memory – I’m on my third class with Carol (“Celtic Crossover”) and also re-learning some old favorites. Just last week I went to a Meetup group of acoustic musicians and led CS&N’s “Helplessly Hoping” – my first time playing with strangers in… possibly forever.  Since college, most likely.

I’ve got a backlog of writing/blogging to catch up on: career insights, new projects in the works, etc.  It’ll have to wait for another night, though.  For now I wanted to get back in the saddle of writing (and to see how the links to Facebook are working now).

Muscle learning

For the past month or so I’ve been engaged in a couple of learning opportunities, both of which are body-centered. The first is (drum roll….) I committed to ride the Wine Country Century on May 1. This will be my first full 100 mile ride (my greatest distance to date is 100K = 62 miles when I was living in Vermont many years and pounds ago.)  The second is that after a hiatus of 4 or 5 years, I’ve picked up my guitar again. To jump start my playing I signed up for a music class with Carol McComb, and on my own I’ve been re-learning some of my old classical pieces.

Training for the Century and working up to some full-length guitar pieces have been fertile ground for reflection on learning.  In no particular order:

I needed to make a commitment.  I rode fairly regularly all last year, but always felt like I could be quite a bit stronger and lighter if I’d been more regular in my practice. Signing up for a 100 mile bike ride and feeling those weeks count down has been highly motivating. Similarly, paying money for a class – and just physically showing up for it – ensured that I’d be playing at least once a week, and after that it was easier to get back into the habit of practicing. What I really should do is commit to fully memorize a favorite piece (like The Clap or La Catedral) by, say, Christmas, and see what that does.

I’m bumping into internalized judgment about mere “physical” learning.  Compared to, say, taking a rigorous academic course, it’s easy to denigrate these learning challenges as “mindless.”  But what does that mean, and where does that attitude come from? I suspect that underneath it is the belief that training for a century or a musical performance is “merely” practice and more practice.  One doesn’t need any special mental talent (so the story goes), just a strong will.

Of course, I realize that reflective practice is cognitively demanding. As soon as I stop and think about it, I see that these practices are far from mindless. On the bike I need to really become familiar with how my body handles various forms of stress – muscle fatigue, back stiffness, oxygen debt, etc. I take mental notes about what it feels like to push a particular hill climb, or how long it takes that Clif bar to break down and provide fuel for my legs. The musical passages have all sorts of mini-challenges as I work out fingerings and the overall musical flow of a piece.

So what?  That last paragraph sounds like a rationalization: “Phew! I’m spending time in cognitively demanding practices after all!”   Why does something need to be labeled “cognitively demanding” to be valued?  While I have quibbles with some of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory, he did popularize the notion that there are many ways to be “smart.”  Still, the “so what” question lingers – why do we need an attribute like “smart” to feel valued?  Why not merely “skilled?”  Put “smart” and “skilled” on a balance scale, and it’s pretty clear which way the scales tip among the intellectual class.

(I should know better than to blog late at night – brain is shutting down). I’m going to continue to ponder this (artificial) split between the cognitive and the physical, the “smart” and the “skilled.”  More to come…

Nothing Special

Not too much going on in creativity land right now. After a bit of traveling I’m focusing on just cleaning up my domicile and taking better care of myself. I rode one of my favorite mtn. bike trails at Wilder Ranch over the weekend (the ride appears near the bottom of my “places” list), and it felt great to be out in Nature again! I have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t a frivolous luxury, but an essential part of my mental and physical health.

I also went to the art show up in San Rafael, where there were a few fine furniture makers and bowl turners exhibiting. Was good to “talk shop” with some of the artists – definitely inspiring. And a reminder that with a few more years of diligent work, I could be producing similar quality work. Something to aim for.

Work is going to be a little crazy busy over the next few weeks, but my goal is to not be so tired in the evenings that I neglect my furniture work. I’m in the home stretch now – after beveling the edges of a bunch of pieces, I can start the final sand-down and assembly process for the chairs! I’m also procrastinating the creation of 80 or so ebony plugs for the table and some touch-up work on that as well, but boy will it feel good to be able to host a dinner party again!

That’s all – just wanted to post and stay in the blogging habit. I’ll write more when something exciting happens.

Today's quests

This was a full (and fulfilling) day! I started off having a sushi lunch with some friends, one of whom was visiting from MD and I hadn’t seen in over a year. Way too long. We chowed down some specialty rolls at Aya Sushi in San Carlos (specialty rolls are a bit expensive, but the serving sizes are huge, too).

After that it was off to Woodcraft in search of a special router bit. On my table the feet for the pedestal are 3.5″ thick. If I want to route the shape to a template for consistency, well, nobody makes a 3.5″ flush trim bit. But I was able to find a 2″ bit. The trick, supposedly, is that you start by tracing out the template pattern from the top down with a template cutting bit (bearing at the shank, near the router). Then you use the portion of the work that you’ve just routed as the template for the flush trim bit (which has a bearing at the tip).

Problem is, my one template cutting bit is only 1″ long (do the math), and for the life of me I can’t find longer ones. I was wondering why I can find a 2″ bit with the bearing at the tip, but not one with the bearing at the shank? Then it hit me – most folks who do template routing just use a “rub collar” mounted to the router’s base plate. You don’t really *need* a special bearing on your bit for that application. So all I really need is a straight bit that’s at least 1.5″ long, and a rub collar. Back to Woodcraft tomorrow for a set of collars. I have a spiral upcut bit that has exactly 1.5″ of cutting length, but I’m going to try to find a 2″ straight bit tomorrow. With luck, by tomorrow night I’ll have photos of nicely trimmed feet.

Oh, and my mortise attachment worked beautifully – I had to cut 1.25″ deep 1/2″ mortises through the top of the feet, and it cut like a dream. Mahogany is much easier to work all around – it’s softer and cuts/planes/drills well.

After buying a bit but before working on the table I decided to take a long mountain bike ride up Windy Hill preserve. I have a few rides that are “fitness milestones” – accomplishing them tells me I’m in a certain level of fitness. One has been climbing up Wilder Ranch to the top, crossing Empire Grade road, and coming back down through the UCSC campus. That ride is routine nowadays (thankfully). Windy Hill is my next level of challenge. After some initial climbing, there are 5 or 6 pitches of short, steep climbing. #3 is the worst – I stalled out near the top (my tire slipped, I lost momentum, and couldn’t start up again). On #4 I was starting to poop out when an attractive, athletic-looking hiker was coming down the hill. She yelled “be strong!” and who was I to argue? So what if I nearly puked my guts out once I crested the peak (and she was out of sight). 😉

#5 and #6 are gentler, and then there is just more climbing, hard to categorize discrete pitches. But I made it to the top! Haven’t done that climb in a couple of years. The ride back down was intense, and I realized I need to work on my downhill skills. The last time I did that ride, in fact, I went straight over the handlebars. My front wheel sank into a mud hole and the whole bike+rider just pivoted over it. Time like that I’m thankful for my years in Aikido – the falling reflexes are still there, somewhat.

Today I froze as I was going faster than I wanted down a really rutted section, braking was a little tenuous as the wheels wanted to lock up on the bumps, and I hit what I call the Holy S–t speed limit. That’s when you’re going faster than you feel confident about, you can’t slow down, and you also realize if you fall you’re really going to hurt yourself bad, so you have no choice but to stay upright and push through it, even if you go faster and faster. I first experienced this learning to cross-country ski – there was a huge hill on a golf course (thankfully, no fixed obstacles to hit), and when it iced up, I could hit the H S speed limit pretty regularly. Wiping out on ice is no fun.

So I survived that little brush with terror. I’ve heard that in the Sierras you can get a ski lift pass with your mountain bike for the day if you want to just charge down hills. I used to scoff at that idea, but as a skill-building day, that could be just the ticket. I don’t ride frequently enough that just plain riding is going to build those skills. I really need to focus and practice a bit.

I made it back down, stopped at a Jamba Juice and vegged to the newspaper on the way home. Something about that post-workout euphoria that almost feels like being mildly stoned. I’m aware of the “chatter” in my head subsiding significantly. I feel relaxed and at peace, but am also aware that I’m not as “sharp” as I usually feel. It really is like having a few beers. The little self-critical voice is wagging its finger at me, but hey, it results from healthy activity, and wears off after a while.

Tomorrow’s mission is to accomplish template routing the table feet. If I do anything after that it’ll be a bonus. I’m tentatively planning on dinner with my friends and then perhaps a “game night” at one of their houses. It’ll be nice to have my dining room set done so that *I* can host a game night sometime!

Oh, random factoid for you Greyhound lovers (I had a Greyhound with my ex, but after we split up she kept her) 😦 My friend’s Greyhound was really sick, had a fluid-filled mass in its gut, the vets diagnosed all sorts of varieties of cancer, etc. Things were looking grim. But, the symptoms didn’t quite all add up to what cancer should have. Turns out this vet was “doggedly determined” (pun intended) to solve the mystery, drew some fluid, and sent it to her mentor down at Texas. By a lucky coincidence, the sample contained the culprit – a fungus that causes Valley Fever. It’s indigenous to the southwest, particularly Arizona. But a lot of racing Greyhounds pass through Arizona during their careers, and so can contract this from the soil. It’s really hard to diagnose, apparently, if you’re not specifically looking for it. So if your dog spent any time in AZ and one day develops pretty serious cancer-like symptoms, be sure to have the vet test for Valley Fever as well.

Hopefully I’ll have a success story to post tomorrow!