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Learning != Doing

I’m going to try to draw together a couple of threads here. It could come out woven beautifully, it could end up in a huge snarl…


A couple of months ago, I was at a local district math development, and ended up discussing the use of technology with the head math coach. I made my usual claim that, while technology can be useful, a lot of it is overrated.

Her response was that technological advancement was a fact of life, and we had to keep up. To illustrate her point, she pointed out that no one shaves with a straight razor anymore – they’ve all moved onto either electric razors, or disposable/cartridge style razors.

So, I get to be the exception.

Just a month before that, I’d inherited a razor that originally belonged to my grandfather, and then my uncle. It’s somewhere around 80 years old – hard to tell because the manufacturer was destroyed during WWII.

I decided to actually use it as somewhat of a novelty. I have an appreciation for knives (which is how it ended up coming to me) and it was in good enough shape that i could get a decent edge back on it. I thought it might make for good cocktail party conversation.

What I didn’t expect is that it would teach me, finally, how to properly shave.

I used to use many quick strokes. From what I can tell at the gym, that’s how just about everyone shaves. But with a straight razor, you learn to feel each hair getting cut – you can tell the difference between a slice and a break. It takes one long slow pass to cut off the hair. The shave is about as close as it was with a twin blade, but I get a lot fewer ingrown hairs because the trimmed edges of the hair are clean and square. Even better, that feel has translated back to using a twin blade, so that when I shave at the gym, I still get a better shave than I have in the past 20 years.


I generally disdain a lot of photography. I find that much of it depends more on the subject matter than on the skills and abilities of the camera person. However, I have several friends, all of them professionals, who regularly manage to blow my socks off.

These days, all of them shoot and process digitally before going to print.

The one thing that all of them have in common, though?

They developed their chops working with film. They learned all of the tricks working with a difficult medium, and learned to pay attention to the finest details, because everything could affect the outcome. Now that they work with better tools, they can work faster, and get closer to their desired outcomes, but they are applying the skills honed in lo tech practice.


I’ve played a number of instruments in my life: Piano, Trumpet, Bass. The one thing they all had in common? Before I could perform artfully, I had to develop technique. That technique came from playing scales and arpeggios. Embouchure development, or string crossing – all required starting slowly, developing a feel for what the muscles were doing, and then repeating until it became quick an automatic. I didn’t perform scales or arpeggios when I played, but the ability to play other pieces was built on the difficult basic work I had done earlier.


My version of a misspent youth differs from others. Despite my academic achievements, my relatives decided that I should undergo a secondary, parallel education. My high school summers were spent in a factory, in Germany, learning to do machine work. You know, the same kind of German machine work that brought you Mercedes, BMW, and Porsche.

During the first year of the apprenticeship, you get to use three tools: a hacksaw, a flat file, and a round file. Not a motor in sight anywhere. You spend that year taking big blocks of steel, and removing parts of them one millimeter of depth at a time, making sure that each iteration is successively more straight and square than the previous one.

After that first year, the only thing you ever use a file for again is to knock the burr off of a freshly machined piece of steel. That year is not about learning to use the machine, it is about learning the sensibility and appreciation for detail, the finesse that can be translated to other tools, but can only be perfected by careful handwork.


So, to bring this home:

Learning is not easy. If it was, we wouldn’t need schools and teachers. My kids frequently say that something I’ve taught them is easy. That’s once they’ve learned to do it – it’s the reward at the end of the process. While they’re learning it, they whine and complain and get headaches and have to use the bathroom and everything else imaginable. But that knowledge can only be integrated into their heads by experience, by wrestling with the fundamentals, by trying it out and repeating it and seeing how it works together with other things they know. They may eventually learn shortcuts that make things easier for them, leaving the methods they cut their teeth on in the dust. There are many teachers who will jump straight to the easiest methods, because that’s how the students will end up having to apply it in the real world. But jumping ahead, providing easy technological solutions for things they would otherwise struggle with, is just robbing them of an opportunity to really really learn.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. sam shah | March 3, 2008 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I LOVE the last paragraph — I think I might send it to my calculus students, who are going through the pain of learning u-substitution for integrals for the first time (

    They’ll soon understand that they’ll be better people for what we’re doing.

    Thanks for that.