Thursday, January 14, 2016

Working through a "Learning Plateau"

It's been a few months since I've posted anything, and one big reason why is that I hit the longest "learning plateau" so far of my scribal career. I'm working through it. After this post I plan keep the momentum going and get back to some more "lesson" posts.

"What's a learning plateau?",

As I'm not an expert on learning science, let me quote from this post on the KnowledgeSmart blog:

"A learning plateau occurs when forward progress seems to have stopped while engaged in learning a new skill. These plateaus are normal and commonly experienced periodically when learning to play a musical instrument, speak a new language, or learn some other complex discipline.

Dutch author, Lodewijk van den Broek, describes hitting the plateau as, ‘the experience where you feel that no matter how hard you try, there is no progress in learning. And even though this is not entirely true, the feeling is very real’."

Early in my scribal career, I was able to take a couple classes with my Great Great Grand Laurel, Master Robert Whitcomb of Brandywine. He described the learning process very similarly to how he writes about it on the Notes for Beginners section of his website:

"In my experience the learning curve is actually a series of steps and not a continuous improvement. One starts, after reaching a new proficiency, with a fairly stable and reproducible set of skills. As time moves and one attempts to learn a new skill, one actually becomes more erratic and becomes worse before the next quantum jump of improvement occurs.

... It can be very frustrating to learn a skill and watch it deteriorate while one is working so hard to improve it. I now warn my students that this will happen and that it is very normal.

The caveat to this is sometimes the steps occur so fast that you don't notice the pattern"

The other thing he explained was that your eye and your hand learn at different speeds, and that your ability to control the pen is limited to the level of detail you can see. He expands on this thought on his website:

The biggest one is a simple fact that you hand can only do what your eye can see, so, you will always see the shortcomings of your work. This is an important point: You cannot draw what you cannot see! Your eye will always be ahead of the skill of your hand. To counter this particular problem, once a week, write a simple phrase on a piece of paper, date it and put it away. After a time, when you feel you haven't made any progress, pull them all out and look at them in chronological order.

You will be surprised at what you've learned.

Over time, you learn to discern a greater level of detail with your eye. This happens before your skill at pen manipulation catches up, so there's a period of time where you feel like you are getting worse (the frustration zone)! I whipped up an awful little graph to show what I mean...

So learning plateaus are a thing. They are normal. They happen to everyone. Despite these facts, they can be very, very, frustrating. So frustrating that you may avoid the activity for a while to focus on something where you can see progress more quickly.

How do I work through a plateau?

I'm still working on figuring this one out myself... Feel free to share your techniques.

One thing is for sure: you aren't going to get better without further practice. The trick seems to be practicing in a way that is enjoyable.

The KnowledgeSmart post gives a few ideas, visit it to read them in detail:

"Take risks. Growth comes when we stretch past our comfort zone."

"Embrace your failure. To overcome your aversion to risk, you have to give yourself permission to fail and be mediocre."

"If you feel stuck in an area of your life, seek out mentors who won’t pull any punches and will give you the honest criticism you need to improve."

"Practice deliberately."

"Get back to basics."

It's taken me a little while to come to terms with this latest Plateau. I'm only just getting over it now. It helped me to know that others have this same issue, and I'm not alone. I pushed myself to get back into work by taking on a few scroll assignments, which I'll be able to share after Birka. I've also had a couple people asking me for my calligraphy advice, which has been huge. I've had to think more about my basics to help them.

If it happens to you, know that you aren't alone. The feeling of being stuck or going backwards sucks, and robs you of confidence - no matter how skilled you might be. Take a breath, get back to basics, push yourself to practice something new or differently, surround yourself with others who inspire you.

Happy scribing! -Alexandre

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