Teaching: building bridges

I have been thinking about the differences between good and ok teachers, and I came to the conclusion that two things are important: showing passion for the topic, and being able to build bridges between known and unknown, for the students to cross. I would like to explain more about this latter point in this post.

Ponte em Paranaguá Raí Nagaoka on Flickr

When I explain something, I need to be aware of what the other person knows, because otherwise I would build a bridge between two unknown topics, that are not connected to anything else. That bridge will therefore be unuseful and will likely deteriorate before any other bridge will be built nearby. A big chunk of information I learned from school stayed, sadly, like cathedrals in the desert, away from my everyday life, precious in theory, but disconnected and quickly forgotten.

It happens that other people find a bridge by themselves, and are enlightened and proud of that new connection. I have learned to avoid judgment on how far-fetched is that connection for me – for example when I introduce a classical composer to some friends, and they connect it to medieval movies they have seen. I could correct them, because the composer has no relation whatsoever with the time and location of those movies; but the main effect is that the bridge is lost. That long bridge is a connection, nevertheless; when a new composer will be presented to these people, they will already know one of that time: so one new bridge could be added to the network, or as an intermediate point on the existing bridge. Condemning bridges is usually a bad move, rarely something positive. Of course if a bridge is misleadingly connecting two things, I point it out; but I try to offer an alternate connection.

That’s why I take extra care in asking other people what they know already, so that I can present the new topic to them, by walking with them on bridges they find meaningful.

 

Book recommendation in the kitchen – “Ratio” by Michael Ruhlman

I knew about this book from Enrico, but until yesterday did not consider it really interesting for everyday cooking. From the cover and the short description, it appeared to me a funny way of writing down recipes: 3-2-1 Pie Dough (3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, 1 part water), and so on.

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But when I read the introductory chapters, it became clear that Ruhlman unveils a more fundamental, deep layer of culinary knowledge. Ratios among ingredients belong to the core of each recipe, no matter how complex. This book takes ratios out in the light, so that the reader can spot them in recipes, and can make the important connection between the ratios of ingredients and the recipe’s outcome. You can still read this book as a set of simplified recipes and follow them blindly, but you would miss its core message: aim at understanding the ratios and how they relate to each other when they share the same ingredients, and you will be freed from following recipes closely. You will be able to improvise your own dishes, because you have learned the ability to predict the outcomes of a combination of ingredients.

But I’m opening this book with doughs and batters because these are where ratios really shine and help any kind of cook, from novice to expert, understand the way the fundamental building blocks of cuisine, flour, water, and eggs behave given varying proportions of each. Indeed there is a dough-batter continuum that runs from thick and elastic to thin and delicate to soft to pourable that became a revelation to me when viewed through the lens of ratios.

I came to this book after my experiments with baking bread (that I am quite proud of) and biscuits (that I am not). Digging for more biscuit recipes did not help much, because I was missing the ability to collect feedback from intermediate steps. Such a book sheds light with a different angle, that enables me to take the step (back?) that I need to make any reliable progress.

This is also a good argument against persistence, as in “repetition of an action without understanding the differences between repetitions”. I could have resolved to attempt baking biscuits until I had found out ratios on my own, or some other trick. But I prefer to get a lesson that I can understand and apply without waste of time and ingredients.

You can follow Ruhlman on his website and Twitter.

Happy cooking everyone!

Drawing streak – the end

I have not posted any more doodles in the last two weeks, as I felt that the streak had came to an end. I had more and more trouble finding subjects for my doodles, delayed them until bedtime, and did not experiment with techniques anymore. The daily doodle had became a chore, instead of a positive exercise. It’s time to find another routine.

I have then thought about which activities bring me joy and let me improve my skills. There are not many in my planning, that is nevertheless full: most of what I do is walking on known paths. How can I reach the appropriate ratio of known to new?

The known. Upon own reflection and some hints from Moshé Feldenkrais’ method, I realised that the mere repetition of a movement or a routine does not automatically bring improvement. The real step forward is guided by awareness of what is being done, that gives the ability to evaluate changements in the practice. I struggle with that quite often, just like a wanderer feels he’s walking in circles in a wood, unable to know if he is making progress in any direction. So, after a long time “just practising”, I feel that I need meaningful feedback on what I draw and play. As I am not good enough a judge for myself, I think I need someone with a better trained eye and the ability to filter and reorder the list of what I need to improve. When I do that myself, I usually notice a pile of things to work on, feel overwhelmed and delay/quit, or start with the most apparent but the most difficult hurdle with little success. I am able to give myself feedback, but on things I know really well, so I don’t find myself able to be my own guide on uncharted land.

The new. It is not enough for me to go through the usual exercises every day, but I find it very difficult to just pick up something new and try to do it. The biggest blocker for me is not knowing if I am doing the new thing right, or at least, in a way that I can improve without needing to unlearn it first. This is again a feedback issue: I need more experienced eyes than mine to guide me around new topics. I have had the chance so far to find great guides in their domains, who showed me their way. I walked with them and enjoyed learning completely new skills, not much for a genuine love for those topics, but rather for the way they were presented.

For all these things I benefit so much from my drum lessons: I enjoy the balance of challenges, strenghtening of known routines, and simple enjoyment of a well-played sequence, that my teacher builds up for me. I bask in the gentle attention to all my movements, and the measured feedback – measured on what I am able to realise and improve in that moment.

I have never understood how someone could approach new activities by “just try doing them, you’ll get better on the way”. I used to see that as immensely arrogant and self-sufficient, especially when it was proposed as the main way to learn. There are however a few activities that I can improve on my own feedback only, and a few more if I content myself with slow/random improvement or minimal goals. For faster pace and higher targets, I need additional external advice. When I said that, some people thought I meant that I needed to trust that external feedback – but it is not a blind trust, it is more an acceptance of informed hints. I have left teachers and schools when I realised we didn’t match, and we both experienced frustration, and felt that our energy was more dissipated than transformed.

There is also a difference between learning how to do an activity that involves only objects, and one that involves sentient beings (animals and people). With objects only, you can make huge progress by learning from others, because the steps are reproducible and the progress is measurable, and you are the only variable element. With animals and people, it’s another story. Your situation is unique: the combination of minds can be understood only by who is in it, decisions can be taken only by the involved parties. External advice can be immensely useful, but never binding. I re-read Lynne Gerald’s post about expert advice, and found it so spot on.

Ha! Lots of reflections came out of my doodling crisis. Hope they help clarify other unclear corners and let me start afresh. And help you readers as much as you help me by sharing your thoughts online, that’s why I write here.