Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Secret to Learning Complex Skills

There is a method to learning complex skills. 

In my previous corporate life I occasionally developed the necessary handouts and trained staff to use software applications related to the Telecom industry. Typically we used process mapping charts to teach the required steps as well as to provide reference material for the users when they were back on the job. The secret to learning complex skills is to break those skills down to the basic simple steps and to identify the decision points that will lead off into different directions to complete a complex task.

Once those individual steps have been mastered the total process becomes very quick and begins to feel much more intuitive to you. On one project I was working with a developer and I suggested that the log in process needed to be streamlined. It was far to long for efficiency in a hectic office since it had 27 separate steps from start to end. He argued with me and said "you are exaggerating" and then said "watch this". He proceeded to log into the application in a matter of seconds. So I said "lets try that again in the way I have to teach the staff how to do it". I logged the system off and I pulled out my process map and walked him through each step (all 27 of them) slowly, explaining how a novice user has to make a conscious decision or choice at each step. Once you perform this process many times it becomes automatic and easy but in the beginning you have to think through each step and it seems overwhelming. Science tells us that practice allows us to develop neural pathways that get stronger with each repetition of a skill. Eventually these pathways work so quickly we are no longer aware that we are doing something that takes many separate steps.

Years ago I took a class with a friend who was a new Knitter. She struggled in class with weaving in ends as you knit. I demonstrated the technique to her several times after the class but it just wasn't clicking so she let it go and just kept knitting on other things. Later she tried again and got the technique instantaneously saying to me that she didn't understand why she couldn't the first time. I suspect that it was timing. I think the skill was being introduced too early in the process of learning for her. Perhaps an earlier critical step in her understanding was not yet clear enough to allow this next layer to be added on. BTW she is now a very accomplished Knitter.

The novice knitter who just finished their first garter stitch scarf can't imagine being able to make a detailed garment that is custom fitted to their own unique measurements. I say they can, they just can't make it as project number two! I see so many people who give up too early because they think the process is too complex for them. So please remember that complex projects are within the reach of every Knitter, it is just a matter of taking things slowly and learning step by step. Keep challenging yourself, take classes to learn and ask more experienced Knitters for help.

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