Know and Optimize Your Learning Process: Steps 1 - 6

Know and Optimize Your Learning Process: Steps 1 - 6

This process is inspired by my experience teaching private dance lessons. Teaching and learning in the context of a regular private lesson provides interesting insights on the challenges of adult learning. The amount of accountability for both the teacher and student and maximized in this type of teaching format so it can be very revealing.

But First an Observation on Resistance Versus Openness
If you talk to most teachers who have taught both adults and children, most will tell you that the biggest difference is the level of resistance to trying something new.

When you show a child something, more often than not they will just try to copy you without any further coaxing. Most teachers that specialize in teaching children rely on this "monkey see, monkey do" type of willingness so much, that they are often at a loss when they find out that adults need more encouragement.

When I am teaching a new student, I am surprised at how often I need to convince them to try something new. I will show them something and when I ask them to try, some will respond with some kind of request or excuse as to why they are unable to try. I refer to this as resistance and it comes in many forms. Sometimes students will say "I don't understand," even though the concept request is simple enough to be self evident. Other times they will say something like "I'm having an off day," or "I've never been good a stuff like this."

When I began teaching adults in private dance lessons, if someone would have told me that what I really needed was to develop a series of encouragements, explanations, metaphors, and soothing statements to convince a student that they simply try, I would have thought that they were crazy. But the reality was all of these are often necessary to help someone take the first step in learning.

The Learning Process
In my teaching experience I have developed this map of the learning process.

Step 1: Remember

If you ask any dance teacher what they are doing most often when they teach most will say "reminding or repeating." That is saying that the first obstacle to learning is the propensity to forget the information that is being presented by the teacher.

One of the pet peeve's of my father when he was teaching his brush painting classes was when a student who had been with him for many years would ask him what brush to use to paint a stroke they had likely painted in class a hundred times. To make matter worse, after he would patiently remind them by saying,"to paint the flower bud, use your Flow brush", they would then ask, "Which brush is that?"

Most of us can remember when we were actually in school and how many intentional habits we had that were just about remembering what we were being taught. We would use a highlighter on our reading materials, we would take notes, we would create and drill flash cards and quiz each other in study groups to make sure that we would not forget the material we were trying to learn.

The great majority of us are not employing any of these remembering techniques when we learn as adults. Many of us are just exposing ourselves to the information and hoping we'll retain it.

Are any if you addicted to the navigation systems in your car or on your phone? Have you noticed that you can use a navigation system to drive to a place 10 or more times without really remembering how to actually get there without being prompted at every turn? With all the modern devices that make remembering less necessary, it is no wonder that our focus on the process of remembering key information could use a tune up.

Empower Your Learning and Increase Your Joy
The more efficiently you improve your confidence and mastery in the art of Asian style brush painting, the more joy and satisfaction you will unlock.

Step 2: Understand

Children are very good at asking, "Why?" They have a desire to understand the world and learn why you should or shouldn't do things. Understanding helps us remember what we've been taught and it also gives us a reason to follow instructions.

It's easy to do something without understanding its context or why we should do it. If someone tells me to drink water, I can force myself to down more cups of water throughout the day. But if someone explains to me the necessity of water and how it can improve my health, chapped skin, and my cognItive function, I will be much more inclined to willingly consume water and even make it a priority.

It is important to remember, but it is also important to understand. One example of this would be a catch-phrase that Ning Yeh has used, "Lowering the boom." This has been used for decades and is a wonderful tool, but only if you understand what he means.

What does it mean to "lower the boom"? What is the specific action of your brush when you do this? Lowering the boom refers to applying pressure to your brush so that it has full contact with your paper, then dragging your brush, much like you would use a mop, rather than just using the tip of your brush as you would a pencil.

Understanding concepts is the next step in the learning process, as it brings clarity to why you should be using certain techniques and it will aid you in remembering. Digging deeper into understanding the different processes will give you a sense of wholeness as you take your journey into the world of Asian Brush Painting.

Step 3: Apply

After being in business for almost 50 years, one of the things we can almost unanimously recommend to our customers is that they paint more. Particularly in this modern age of efficient and largely free distribution of information, it is possible to gain the equivalent of a PhD in Chinese Brush Painting without actually painting enough to make significant progress towards mastery.

Once you are able to remember the things that you have learned and have taken the extra step of deepening your understanding, now it is time to apply this knowledge in the practice of painting. It is in this application that you will truly advance your book knowledge into practical knowledge while also providing an opportunity to learn things that are unique to you.

Applying your knowledge immediately exposes other opportunities for learning and inspires questions that you can take to your teachers or meditate upon yourself.

We encourage you to develop a habit of immediately picking up a brush and trying to apply something new that you have learned. Paint more and discover the riches hidden in the time tested process of trial and error. This is the next step on your journey to mastery! 

Step 4: Practice

A bit of review on Step 3. Apply: Learned and understood knowledge matures as it is applied. As you apply a piece of knowledge you realize that application exposes what you have yet to learn. In this way, it can inspire questions that can make understanding more complete.

The most common way people sustain positive focus is through practiced repetition. Each time you do something your confidence increases. As you become more confident and more comfortable, your creative power increases.

Attitude is Just as Important as Action
It is important to clarify that sustained POSITIVE focus is what is important. It is actually counter productive to "grind" through action with grumpy or negative attitudes. If you are unable to practice cheerfully, then it is better to improve your mood by focusing on something else.

As you practice, try to clear your mind of thoughts and softly focus on the task at hand. Make the initial goal of practice enjoyment over anything more specific. Over time, as your confidence and comfort in practice grows, you will be able to focus more specifically in areas or on developing skills of interest.

Follow your curiosity in practice and allow yourself the time to metaphorically walk a delightful path through each practice session.

Practical Tips

  • Set aside a dedicated space for painting to make allocating time to practice easier.
  • Create regular practice times to develop a positive rhythm associated with practice.
  • Realize that frequency can be just as effective (if not more effective) as duration. Regular, short practice sessions are often more effective than less frequent, longer sessions.
  • Consider creating a "Doodle Station" with a brush, piece of magic paper, and a water bowl to make it more convenient for you to grab 5-10 minutes of practice time during your day.

Step 5: Muscle Memory

The Challenge of Mind and Body
There is performance named Max Winkelhaus who asserts that the challenge of learning is that our minds are arrogant and have A.D.D. while our bodies are like a dog. What he meant by this is that our minds can learn new concepts quickly and also get bored easily but our bodies need repetitive training over time to learn new "tricks" or develop habits.

Somehow, we need to give the body the practice and repetition it needs while still keeping our mind engaged with positive attitudes. Over time, this will develop muscle memory. The mind will be able to engage in the activity with confidence and the body will have the training that it needs to be consistent. So how do we learn in a way that brings harmony between the tendencies and the needs of the mind and body.

There are a couple tricks that you can try to bridge the gap between your mind and your body and produce a productive practice session. Try focusing on basic, repetitive task (such as a bone stroke, petal stroke, etc) but change the focus of your stroke every 2-3 minutes on a different positive aspect. For example, here is a possible practice sequence.

  • Minutes 1-3: Focus on Decisiveness (placing your stroke confidently).
  • Minutes 4-6: Focus on Moisture Control
  • Minutes 7-9: Focus on Color Variation

You can start with a practice session that is 15-20 minutes, changing the focus of your stroke every few minutes in a cycle of a handful of strokes or techniques. This should give your body the repetition necessary for muscle memory while keep your mind engaged and encouraged to maintain interest and focus.

Muscle memory doesn't sound like hugely creative state of being but it is precisely the consistency and stability associated the state of muscle memory that provides the most productive environment for creativity to blossom. When the handful of good habits that contribute to sound fundamental brush painting can be executing automatically, the artist will have a mature tools set to express themselves creatively.

Step 6: Discernment

What is discernment? Discernment is about looking at your creative output and deciding to make changes by emphasizing or deemphasizing aspects. A crucial part of this process is not being overly critical or attaching emotion to changes. One way to do this is to think in terms of cause and effect instead of right or wrong.

It's important to understand that the universe operates on a principle of inclusiveness. For example, there is no way to focus on something negatively and exclude it from your life. When you look at something you don't like and focus on it with great emotion, you're actually inviting more of it.

So what can we do instead? When you're evaluating your work, it's important to find something that you genuinely like about it (no matter how small), focus on it, and it will increase. When you light a fire, it doesn't start out raging. It begins with a tiny spark; with careful attention and nurture, it will grow larger and eventually grow into a passionate blaze.

The process of discernment is an important growth process for artists. If this step is done thoughtfully, it can create consistent evolution that makes your creative expression more enjoyable and make you as an artist more enjoyable to follow.

Helpful Tips:

  • Engage in the Discernment Process in a genuinely encouraging way.

  • Recognize that change is looking at something and making a different decision. It's not anything bigger than that.

  • When you explore different directions in your art, don't bring in discernment too early. Allow yourself to proceed in that direction in a way that builds momentum, then you will really see the effect of your choice.

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