A short examination of the learning process from self-consciousness to mastery with physical routines.
For as long as I can remember, I have always had a sort of fascination with learning processes. I can recall numerous points in my life where I can now see how my learning progressed in adopting a new process or routine. I can recall my learning progress from being self-conscious about riding a bike in the first few days to mastery later in childhood. I can recall the skills I learned as a sheet metal worker, working stacks of sheet metal into an air carrier called duct. And later on in adulthood, I can recall using an idle skill I learned in high school, to work in the office.
I can recall learning to ride a bike as a child. I think for a time, I might have used training wheels. But much of what I remember is a bike with no training wheels. I think once I figured out that I would stay up as long as the wheels were turning, I was fine. I lived on a gently sloping hill at the time, so I had the pleasure of an easy launch to learn how to ride. I can also recall not so much fear, but the sense of myself, of being self-conscious.
As I look back on my later childhood, I can recall not even looking at the pedals or thinking about how I was riding my bike. I was more concerned with where I was going. I can remember coasting while standing on the pedals to feel the air rush past me. It was a pleasing, gliding sensation that I could not experience as a newbie to bikes because I was self-conscious about riding bikes in the beginning. As a middle-aged man, I have a greater appreciation for that transition from self-conscious learning to mastery.
As a young adult, I spent about 10 years working in a sheet metal shop. I learned the craft of metalwork for air conditioning. I learned how to take a stack of metal sheets on a table and cut them, form them, and knock them together to make ductwork. I was a tin knocker.
One of the tools I used was called a roll forming machine. In our metal shop, we had roll forming machines for seams and joints. Seams ran the length of a joint of duct, from end to end. A joint was made at the end of the piece of duct to allow connection to another piece. Two pieces of metal were formed to hook together to form a piece or joint of ductwork.
The work was repetitive. I’d have a table with 50 flat pieces of metal to make 25 joints of duct. I’d run two sides of each piece through a roll-forming machine for seams, and then use another machine to form the hooks on the ends for the joints. And then we’d use a brake, a large hydraulic press, to form a 90-degree bend in the metal to form two sides of the duct piece.
I can easily trace my steps from self-conscious learning to mastery during the time that I worked in a sheet metal shop. With each repetition, I learned a little something about the process. I’d adjust here or there. I raised my arms to raise the metal for greater ease in passing the metal through the machine. I’d bend the metal sheet to keep the edge pressed against a guide on the roll former that kept the metal straight with the wheels while rolling through the machine. I did a lot of thinking while forming metal, but I was always keen on finding some efficiency while I was working. I can easily trace my steps from self-conscious learning to mastery during the time that I worked in a sheet metal shop.
Both of the aforementioned processes involved muscle memory. Muscle memory holds the memory of how to ride a bike, climb a ladder, or work with metal. Kinesthetics is the study of the sensation of our place in the world and the processes we must learn in order to live in it.
There is one more learning experience that has been with me since high school, how to use the keyboard. Long ago, in the days before we had cell phones with address books and dialers, I noticed that when I wanted to call someone familiar to me, I would remember the pattern that I’d punch on the number pad of a phone instead of the phone number. At first, I’d learn the number, remember the number when dialing the number, and then connect the call. After a while, I began to punch the sequence of numbers without really recalling the number. I mean, I got to the point where I didn’t know the phone number, but if you asked me for the number, I’d have to sit at a phone and punch the sequence again to remember it. This is because I associated the pattern of the phone number on the keypad with the person I wanted to call.
I’ve found the same learning process with phone numbers on the computer keyboard, too. This process, learning the sequence, then learning the pattern, also occurred with my use of a typewriter and eventually, the computer keyboard. I developed a sort of kinesthetic literacy with words.
When I type words that I use often, I don’t spell the words in my mind as I type. I recall the pattern for each word and punch the pattern on the keyboard. I now have a large catalog of keyboard patterns that I type for every word that I’m familiar with. For new words, I go through the same process: spell the word self-consciously as I type, learn the pattern, then remember the pattern for the new word, especially if I use that word often. This is a kinesthetic method of recall and it works if my hands are on a keyboard. Typing each word is a routine.
This learning experience lends itself to patterns in language that make it easier for me to remember facts. If I’m having a conversation with someone, I might recall something of interest to the other person and describe that thing. But I don’t recall all the words exactly. I recall fact patterns that make it easy for me to recite the facts without worrying about how to repeat what I learned verbatim. Each time that I repeat the pattern, I encounter a new way to describe the facts while keeping the facts straight. With each repetition, I make minor improvements to how I recite the facts and improve my memory of the same.
When we learn processes like riding a bike, telling a story, manufacturing, and office work, we develop routines for each process. We take the most important points of each process, each step in a process, and turn it into a routine. The routine is easier to remember, and in many cases, the muscles remember the routine. We use routines so that we’re not making the same decisions over and over again. We use routines to abstract the work and decrease the burden on our minds so that we can enjoy what we’re doing.