November 16, 2017
4 mins read

Adventures in being a complete novice

Last year I took a sabbatical from teaching students to focus on writing, educational leadership, as well as personal care and growth.

One of my goals was to put myself in the mindset of being a pure novice so that I could better understand what my students experience when they learn something new. So I took a pottery class (among other things, including learning to ski).

Below is a reflection I wrote right after my first pottery class. You might be interested to know that I did eventually make a few pieces that continue to exist, including one I keep on my desk as a reminder of this experience.

Dr. Catherine Rawn

I named that piece “Persistence” because I almost gave up on it so many times, and I thought all along it was going to be a disaster, but it turned out pretty ok in the end.

It’s a welcome reminder to keep hanging on when things aren’t quite working out the way I had planned.

Yesterday I failed miserably.

I was frustrated, a tiny bit embarrassed, and delighted. I was delighted because one of my personal goals for my sabbatical is to learn something completely new from scratch. I want to feel like a complete novice, so I can improve my empathy for what my students may be going through when they join my class.

The phenomenon called the hindsight bias or curse of knowledge basically means that once we know something, it’s really difficult to imagine what it’s like to not know that thing. Imagine not knowing what the traffic lights or temperature mean. Imagine not knowing how to decode what these letters that form this sentence mean. Weird, eh?

The challenge is, it’s my job as a teacher to imagine what it’s like to not know about psychology (or some aspect of it), and then try to teach that topic to people who actually do not know (as much) about it. What makes this action trickier is that the longer I do my job, the more I know about psychology, which makes it harder and harder to imagine what it’s like to be in my students’ chairs.

I try to get around this challenge in a few ways, including talking with my students about their thoughts. But let’s be honest: it’s been a while since I’ve had a pure experience of complete and utter lack of understanding.

Enter: Pottery class.

Yesterday morning I wandered down to a studio I’ve passed a million times but never entered. I was excited to embark on a new learning adventure! I was going to create something! It might not be beautiful, but I could create!

I was the second person to arrive, out of a class of 10. I met my teacher, she used our names to introduce us to each other. I felt welcome. Someone said she had done this before and I didn’t think much of it until later. (For the record, my only foray into art was a single class in high school that was half history, and included zero pottery.)

The teacher showed us around the facility. I was trying to absorb all the information. The keywords I remember, in no particular order, include: kiln, bisque firing (as opposed to another kind of firing I forget), plug, glaze, members only shelf, don’t touch, student shelf, slip, washroom, clay, silicate, wheel, clean, wedge, centering.

Soon, my brain was full of terms, but I was still excited. Read: without some sort of handout or way to take notes, jargon became a jumbled mass quickly… but maybe that’s ok as I don’t really need to know all this, right?

It felt like an eternity until we finally got our clay! Read: all I wanted to do was *DO* the discipline of pottery, which made it difficult for me to concentrate fully on the orientation.

Pottery making

The teacher demonstrated wedging, which is kind of like kneading dough and is essential for a strong final product. I measured exactly 2 pounds of clay from my large block (instant success!). My wedged clay looked reasonably good for a first try. Great!

With confidence, I prepared my wheel station.

I watched the teacher’s demonstrations carefully and tried to emulate her precise hand and body actions. Things were going reasonably well until suddenly half my clay came off in my hand! I made do for a while, and then I tried to make a cylinder, carefully watching the steps and trying to follow with a half portion of clay. After trying to be so careful with it, my cylinder fully collapsed in on itself. It was such a disappointment.

I suddenly felt frustrated, especially when I looked over at the person who had done it before. Hers looked just like the teacher’s. Read: social comparison framed my feeling of disappointment and pushed it into failure, but also motivation to make another one.

I stayed an extra half an hour because of a fierce desire to make SOMETHING, ANYTHING that didn’t resemble a pile of grey mush. I tried three times and couldn’t even get the clay to stick to the wheel. It kept slipping off!

That most fundamental starting point eluded me, despite the careful attention I had paid to the demonstration, despite the fact that I’d successfully done it just an hour before when my teacher was there. Frustrating! I gave up — but only because I realized I had actual work I had to do and couldn’t just spend the rest of the day on pottery.

Reluctantly, I left. All the way home I was frustrated and annoyed because I couldn’t get it.

Slowly, I began to laugh at myself.

I had taken one single class in a completely unfamiliar discipline and somehow I wasn’t a magical unicorn prodigy in pottery so I was frustrated by it. Ha!

Later, I actually uttered the words, laughing, “Turns out I’m not a great potter!” and they made me pause. Really?

Is it true that I don’t think I’m a great potter because I got one lesson and couldn’t make something? Of course not.

Read: This reaction is consistent with something I’ve suspected for a long time. I tend to have a fixed mindset, and correct to a growth mindset when I notice it. I’m reminded of when my statistics students say “I’m no good at math” and I try to convince them otherwise. It takes time and practice and willingness to fail but not feel like a failure.

Scorecard: Pottery definitely won the day.

I won insight about failing and a pile of clay covered in mud (called slip) that looked kind of like this (actually this is nicer than mine was).