Sunday, April 08, 2007

I was looking through the spam file on my web server and found comments regarding teachers that had been kept from me by the marvels of the machine. The first is from Joe Barry regarding the "beginner mind".

A further thought on the subject of beginner's mind. I didn't really begin to master the basic skills of woodworking until I had to teach them. You abrutly run into the limitations of both your own knowledge and skill. It takes a good understanding of a skill such as sharpening or hand planing to teach it. Lacking the facility to quickly and consistently demonstrate a skill makes you all too aware of your limitations. Plus, teaching brings glaring and unswerving light onto your own habits- both good and bad! One problem I encountered was that I am ambidextrous and switch hands without thinking about it. I drove kids nuts until one of them pointed out that I switched hands as the grain changed. I had to learn how to do hand planing and sawing as a righty and a lefty in order to teach the skill and it made me re-examine just how I did those things. That contemplation trimmed away the extraneous things that I had picked up that were not good technique.

On the mat, as a martial artist the term beginner's mind has a somewhat different usage. One of the precepts is that practice is the most important skills. You need to practice and practice until it becomes second nature. Your mind needs to be open at every class to find something new in what can be the umteenth time you have practiced a technique. Dan Millman has observed that only perfect practice will make perfect. If you practice poor sloppy technique you will never improve. The most rewarding aspect of practice is that when you have thrown an attacker and it happens so smoothly you find yourself asking "what did I just do?" Technique cannot rise to the level of spontaneity without significant practice. Interestingly, when a high ranking teacher from Japan comes to teach a seminar he will not teach esoteric advanced skills but will concentrate on the minutia of a basic technique that you "learn" as a beginner. After the seminar you begin to realize just how much you have yet to learn.

The following is from John Grossbohlin, a thoughtful contribution on teachers:

Interesting question... I pondered it over night and I kept coming back to one theme. That theme was that my father showed me how to do things and how to solve problems when I was a kid. Seems he can make or fix just about anything--I thought this as a kid and still do as I approach my 50th birthday! As for his training, he served an apprenticeship as a tool and die maker at IBM in the 50s.

He recently retold the story of a visit to his plant by Tom Watson. During that visit Watson told the young apprentices that they were the future leaders of IBM... At the time they didn't get it. "We're just tool makers!" However, 20-30 years later those guys were in leadership positions. IBM grew their own talent in those days and Watson understood that if they could survive the rigorous tool and die apprenticeship, and learn how to solve problems there, that they would hold leadership roles in the future.

In terms of formal teachers, there were a lot of them in my academic career... a career that included college and grad school where I trained to be a researcher. I recall many of the teachers, some even became colleagues and friends when I taught college courses for about ten years. Some, like my high school mechanical drawing teacher Donald Muth, gave me an opportunity to push the envelope. I took two years of classes with Mr. Muth and then did an independent study in surveying with him. The independent study gave me the chance to use a transit and make a topographic map. Not your typical high school fare, and I never did it for a living, but I learned a lot. One of the classes was a basic architectural drawing class.

At about age 12-13 I did a lot of the work building a four car garage. In that project I learned about making a square and level slab, placing, screeding and smoothing concrete, laying out, cutting, and building framing, girders, and sheathing. When I was about 13-14 I built a foundation to support an addition on our home. When it came time to square up the layout strings on the batter boards my father didn't tell me how to do it. Rather he asked me what math I took in school might be useful here... It only took me a few seconds to respond "Pythagorean theorem!" That was one of those "Ah Ha" moments in my early life... you can actually do something with that stuff they tortured us with in school! Later in my teens and early 20s I also laid out, cut and framed hip and gambrel roofs. I was able to do these things myself by combining things I learned from my father and Mr. Muth.

I spoke with my father today when he phoned in search of a ride home from the airport. I had recently e-mailed him photos of the picture frames my boys made well as photos of them working on dovetails. He commented that I was good at that figuring out how to make things when I was a kid. Like he, I'm taking the time to teach my children how to do things and solve problems. Like he, I learned a lot by making things and using tools. Like he and I, my boys are being given the same kind of early experiences. For example, at ages 6 and 8 my boys helped me side our home, at 8 and 10 they scribed and helped secure sleepers to a concrete floor and put down the plywood sub-flooring, and now at 9 and 11 they are learning how to cut dovetails by hand. The siding was blind nailed and the floor system will be covered by finish flooring. Thus stray hammer blows and bent nails didn't hurt the finished project but did let them develop skills.

My mother was a strong influence also. She was the one who was involved with us in Cub Scouts and the Drum and Bugle Corp. She often took us camping in the summer during the week--my father joined us on the weekend--and fishing, canoeing, hiking and swimming.

The bottom line is my parents were involved in my life and served as role models. They also made it possible for me to meet a lot of formal teachers... Today my vocational work is done in my head and is often intangible in nature. My avocations, on the other hand, involve my hands and the creation of tangibles. Both are satisfying... and complement each other in that I can draw from both domains when solving problems.

Thanks Joe and John for contributing to the Wisdom of the Hands.

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