Learning From Practiced Tasks

I recently received the following fortune from a cookie: If you understand what you’re doing, you’re not learning anything.

And I realized that’s not entirely true. It assumes that you’re practicing rote routines, the way dancers, musicians, and athletes do in order to commit a performance to muscle memory. But even those groups don’t mindlessly practice. They engage in deliberate practice, which I’ve blogged about before. They pick out a section that’s not going smoothly, that’s tripping them up for whatever reason, and they work on it until it’s no longer an obstacle. They might slow down their practice. They might overpractice. They change something about how they’re practicing the trouble spot so they can get it down and move past it.

Even if you aren’t engaged in deliberate practice, you are opening yourself to learning more than you realize in a general practice session. As you work through your practice, as you reflect on your practice, you can actually engage in deep learning, gaining a more thorough and comprehensive understanding of what you’re working on. Depending on the skill set you’re practicing, you may even gain an awareness or better understanding of the systems related to your craft. When you can see where your work fits within the whole of the craft, it can give you better insight and sharpen your focus in your practice.

If you find yourself practicing to rote, mindlessly repeating work, shake things up. Your work will be better for it.

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A Professional Toolkit

If I had a nickel for every writer (nearly every single one of them self-published or amateur hoping to be picked up by a traditional publisher) I’ve heard claim they don’t need to know grammar, I’d be a very rich woman. A writer, professional or working toward professional, who doesn’t have a strong command of grammar is like a carpenter who doesn’t know the various types of joins. Actually, s/he is more like a doctor who thinks s/he doesn’t have to learn all the muscle groups in the body.

You wouldn’t trust a doctor who couldn’t tell a tendon from a deltoid. Why should anyone trust a writer who can’t structure a sentence or paragraph? It sounds like a strange and downright ludicrous comparison, but it’s really not. When you decide to pursue a profession, then you need to actually learn that trade. That includes vocabulary, tools, and techniques common to that trade’s work. Otherwise, you’re simply playing at the trade.

For a writer, punctuation marks are not much different from a carpenter’s joins or fastening devices. Crafting sentence structure isn’t much different than correctly rebuilding tendon connections. When we don’t know what we’re doing, it shows it in the lack of clarity of what we’re writing. And that lack of clarity can completely torpedo our writing.

So, if you’re a writer staring at a grammar lesson (be it punctuation, parts of speech, sentence constructions, etc.) and you’re rolling your eyes and saying to yourself, I don’t need to learn this. That’s what editors are for., it is time for you to choose a different career path. You can’t be unwilling to learn the tools of the trade and expect anyone to take you seriously.

 

(It’s been one of those weeks. Does it show?)

Cool Down

Autodidactic practice is lonely.

How’s that for an opening?

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but I have long had to fight for my research and practice time. Friends and family have this image of me cooped up in a dark, closed-off room, no connection to humanity, doing who knows what. So, in an effort to save me from myself, these well-meaning folk try to drag me off to do things. Somehow, I have always managed to get things done anyway.

Because the simple fact is: autodidactic practice is only as lonely as you choose to let it be.

These days, communities of like-minded people to work and create with, to practice with, to share with, can be found just about anywhere. Offline. Online. Some combination of the two. We’re very lucky.

I think that’s one of the reasons I like hitRECord. It’s a space to share your own work in relation to a given theme or topic, but you can also interact and collaborate with others with complementary skills. You can be at the same level. You can be on entirely different levels. It doesn’t matter. Anyone who wants to help explore a topic through a creative means is welcome, and in my experience the community has been welcoming and encouraging. It’s a safe place to learn and develop skills, both for yourself and from others.

And in case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of finding practical outlets to serve as practice spaces.

But remember that all projects go through a cycle, the last of which is a period of reflection, a time to review your work, to figure out what you did that worked and what you did that you would do differently next time. This is what makes practice a key part of the learning process – learning from mistakes helps you become stronger in a skill. You can do this in a private journal (I actually have a section of my digital journal dedicated to this. I call it my sketchbook.), or you can be really brave and let others learn from your experience by sharing it in a blog or social media space.

However you choose to wrap up your projects, always make sure you’ve learned from the experience and that you’re moving forward with an eye on your development in your next steps.

So, this is it for our month-long look at the awesomeness known as practice. Next month, we put what we’ve learned this month to use as we explore the Reviewing phase of the personal learning environment. (Don’t worry. The name is a total misnomer.)

Natural Talent and Practice

We can’t have a discussion about practice without talking about those who appear to have a natural talent.

People who have a natural talent at something…are challenging. They’re the ones who pick things up quickly, who can bring a grace or precision to what they do. They’re fun to watch, even when they’re insufferable to be around…for various reasons.

The problem with people who are natural talents is that often they feel that they don’t need practice. They can already run with the big dogs, so why do they need to practice?

And they’re right….at least about running with the big dogs. But just like experts and masters have to keep practicing, engaging more in deliberate practice to keep up and fine tune their skills, natural talents have to do the same thing or they’ll be lapped by the people who’ve been working hard all along.

What’s worse is when a teacher, coach, or mentor, for whatever reason, agrees with the natural talent and lets them slide. They do that person a huge disservice. There literally is no level of talent that cannot benefit from practicing.

What I hope you’re understanding here is that practice is a part of the learning process. A very necessary part, regardless of where you are in your development.

Personal Projects as Practice

Depending on your chosen industry, trade, or craft, there might be a number of strong communities of practice to collaborate and practice with. Or you might be forging new trails, mixing up trades and crafts to better fit your creative vision.

Whatever your situation, you do yourself a world of good by developing your own projects to drive your learning and give you a meaningful practice space that will likely help you gain feedback. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned, just by deciding I wanted to try to do something I’d never done before.

For example, when I wanted to learn how to create educational videos, I was just starting to fumble my way through creating Dead Bunny.  Because I knew how to blog and to write, the original plan was to blog about all the skills I wanted to cover, and then turn that blog into a textbook of sorts. But I love a challenge, and as I was reading about video production and educational videos, I realized I could attempt to turn Dead Bunny into a series of educational videos.

It was definitely a learning experience. I decided to go the route of narrated slide shows because I had no video camera. I had to learn Impress (the OpenOffice/LibreOffice version of PowerPoint), Audacity, and different video production tools as I moved between computers (I was blowing up computers every six months at that point). I had to learn how to script, to storyboard, to manage both my image and my audio components. With every video, I learned a lot about production and asset management and kept fine-tuning my process. It took me six years, but I finally completed all of the videos I intended to create.

Knowledge that I gained while learning how to produce Dead Bunny has ended up serving me well in my voiceover work, although it is completely fair to say that Dead Bunny did not adequately prepare me for the production challenges that come along with creating audiobooks. I’m far more competent on a wide range of tasks on Audacity now than I was two years ago, but my asset management skills have proven invaluable. (I have yet to produce a personal voiceover project. I haven’t found the right project to attempt yet, so I stick to learning from working with others.)

Recently, I started posting to Archive of Our Own a fan fiction project I’ve referred to in reference to using fan fiction to learn how to write. At the time I started writing those pieces, I had fallen out of fan fiction and, to an extent, out of writing and I was afraid of losing my skills. So I started using a dubbed anime series as writing prompts. It gave me an excuse to write when I couldn’t motivate myself to write anything else. But more than that, it got me thinking about plot and character development. I kept them to myself for a long time, despite having shared the rest of my fan fiction with the fanfic community, but even privately they had a positive impact on my writing skills.

You really do learn a lot from designing and working through your own projects, and they can inspire you to investigate skills, industries, trades, and crafts you might otherwise have never considered trying out yourself. It’s a good way to get your feet wet in skills you’ve been thinking about learning, and to create opportunities for feedback. So get out there. Find a skill you’ve been meaning to try, create a project that will force you to start learning that skill, and then do it! And then go really crazy, and build the project that will help you level up in that skill. Let me know how it goes.

The Power of Deliberate Practice

Last week, we talked about the need for daily practice in our skill development. I mentioned that daily practice need not become a rote activity. In fact, it’s best if it isn’t, especially if you are a master or nearing mastery in that discipline. Advanced practitioners engage in something called deliberate practice to make better use of their practice time.

What is deliberate practice? It’s giving your practice time a specific focus, rather than just practicing everything or a wide range of skills or pieces. It often doesn’t take long to practice a skill to rote; it does take a while to sort out and polish the details – the sign of a true master.

When I was studying ballet, we often spent a rehearsal session running through an entire dance a couple of times at the beginning and the end of the session. The rest of the time, the rehearsal director would have us work on one or two sections that weren’t flowing as smoothly as they could. The first two runthroughs would often show where the “pain” was. The final runthroughs would show how well the “pain” had been worked through. By focusing our rehearsal time on the details, it was a much better, more engaging use of our practice time, and we ended up better dancers with a better dance than when we started.

Similarly, students who focus their study efforts on concepts that aren’t coming easily to them are often more successful students than those who keep studying everything all together. They create a master study guide for the class, but then they create more focused study guides for the harder concepts, allowing them to continually stay refreshed on the class material as a whole while working to become comfortable with all of the material.

That’s the benefit of deliberate practice. It forces you to focus on developing nuance in your skills, on coming to understand minute differences in your performance, and to strengthen weaknesses. Used effectively, deliberate practice can help reduce the number of hours needed to practice something to an advanced level because you are constantly analyzing your performance, looking for weak spots, and focusing on strengthening those weak points.

Have you been working on practicing something this month? Have you been engaging in daily practice? Well, now I want you to reflect on your practice, on your current skill level and where you want to go, and I want you to develop a few deliberate practice sessions. Do you notice a difference after those deliberate practice sessions?

Make a point to incorporate deliberate practice into your daily practice to really charge up your learning.

Welcoming Communities of Practice

While it’s all well and good to practice and develop your skills, sometimes you just need to hang out with other people practicing your same discipline for camaraderie, commiseration, and feedback. I thought it might be helpful this month to share some of the online communities I’m aware of that welcome practitioners of any level. Most of my knowledge centers around the arts that I participate in (or have participated in), so if you know a good, supportive community that supports other skills and disciplines, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Communities focused on writing

Communities focused on image creation (photography, digital art, visual arts)

  • deviantArt (dA actually caters to a wide variety of arts)
  • Flickr
  • I feel like I’m missing another really big one, but I can’t for the life of me remember its name right now.

Communities focused on video and media production

Communities focused on crafting

Communities focused on coding

  • GitHub (Someone told me you can also do technical and instructional writing here, but I haven’t had any luck proving that.)

The Power of Daily Practice

Often, people who are starting out in a sport or creative activity who aren’t there sincerely will ask the question, “How often should I practice?” While it’s kind of those people to notify the instructor that they will likely drop out of the activity, it’s a bad question.

The truth is, at the beginning of your learning journey you know nothing. So you have to learn each skill, and then you have to practice it until it’s second nature so you can move on to more advanced skills. There’s no other way to acquire that knowledge. As a result, you really should practice daily. Daily practice has been shown to aid in mastering a skill more efficiently than you would if you practiced haphazardly or not at all. It’s through that repetition that you internalize the skill.

But even as you advance through your chosen sport or creative activity, you have to maintain that ritual of daily practice, both to keep up your skills and to build a solid layer of new skills. Daily practice as a more advanced practitioner gives you another advantage: It puts you in a position to analyze your practice, to make fair assessments and recognize patterns and make connections, and to find areas and ways to take calculated risks.

It’s not like you have to sit in the exact same place in the exact same way at the exact same time of day while practicing, although there are situations where that is encouraged. You can change up your practice so you don’t get bogged down in a rut. The important part is that you practice daily.

Need a little motivation to implement a daily practice schedule for your own skill building? Try out these tools designed to help build that habit:

There are also numerous programs for creating every day for a quite a few disciplines. Do a quick search on your favorite search engine for “daily challenges [your target discipline]”, and remember to record and reflect on your practices!

And if all else fails, and you just feel like you can’t spend one more day in a row on your practice, print out these words of wisdom from Ira Glass and place them where you can see them.

Why Do We Practice?

Ask any athlete or performer that question, and she’ll tell you that we practice to get better, to develop muscle memory, and to set ourselves up for a better moment of performance. Ask any middle or high school student, and she’ll tell you we practice because teachers hate kids and enjoy torturing them.

Guess which group is closer to being right.

The nice thing about practice is that even when you do it unwillingly, you still gain something from it. From the repetition, you internalize the skill you are practicing, making it more automatic until it becomes very basic to you. This is actually the point behind my rant on the myth you never use math beyond school. Thanks to countless hours of homework and drills, you learned a set of math skills to the point you didn’t have to consciously think about them any more. You may have hated every minute of it, but you gained a mastery over them that allows you to just apply them without consciously thinking them through when they showed up in later problems.

Time spent internalizing a set of skills sets you up to successfully apply those skills without much effort, allowing you to focus on the situation in which you are applying the skills. This might be a competition, a performance, or a presentation. You might also be learning a new set of skills that you needed those earlier skills to be subconsciously ingrained in your head.

It’s a vicious cycle…if you’re a teenager trapped in a class filled with worksheets. But at the end of each trip through the cycle, you come out better able to face future challenges.

So, really, we practice to make skills that we found challenging or difficult at first become second nature to us.

A Month of Practice

Before we get into the actual activity of the personal learning environment, I thought it might be useful to take a step back and look at the act of practicing. So we’ll be spending this month looking at practice from a few different points of view.

Without getting into it too much here, practice is the means by which we internalize what we’ve learned. It is repetitious in nature, and when done correctly can enable you to master a skill to a greater proficiency more quickly than you would if you had not practiced. As we’ll learn over the month, it’s not as simple as just sitting down and doing something until it’s rote. Practice is more complicated than that.

Practice is also key to the learning process because a good practice session includes time for reflection, which is another tool that allows us to learn more quickly and proficiently. But we will discuss that more as we move through the month.

Want to get a head start? Pick something you’ve been meaning to learn and devote some part of every day to it. I’ll be asking how you did at the end of the month!