July 13th, 2010

Learning can be Frustrating


It’s good to remember how frustrating learning can be. It’s even better when you experience the frustration firsthand.

I like to knit challenging projects—part of my plan to stave off senility. I do knit some easy stuff, but I like patterns that take me to new places. During a recent visit to our favorite knitting store, my friend Karen found just such a pattern. It consists of a series of hexagons, each knit separately but connected along one edge so that after 80 or so hexagons you end up with this very impressive and unique shawl. I promptly bought the pattern and recommended yarn.

I started the project enthusiastically, only to discover just how challenging it was. The hexagons are knitted on double pointed needles—three of them—so you knit the hexagon from the outside edge in a circle to the center using a spiral pattern that involves adding and decreasing stitches. The pattern only works if the hexagon is constructed by knitting clockwise—which isn’t as easy to figure out as it sounds.

First try: total disaster. The stitches go on the needle easily, just like they come off, and the pattern depends on having the 20 stitches on each needle. After three rows, I take it all off and start over. I’m telling myself I’m still figuring out how the pattern works; this is part of process. Second try, success! I start the next hexagon attaching it to the first and I get it all the way to the center with almost no problems. Maybe this is easier than I thought! At the center, you make the remaining six stitches into one. Confidently, I pull the yarn through the stitches, but I missed a couple of stitches, which promptly unravel beyond where I can fix them. So do that spiral again.

But frustration really sets in on the third spiral. First, I just can’t get the stitch count correct—start over. Then I manage to get the spiral going counterclockwise, start over again. The third time I increase at the wrong point so the spiral jags more than it spirals. Good grief! As I pull that one apart, the yarn hopelessly knots. Next thing I know both expletives and needles are flying across the room.

Anger accompanies frustration, but those feelings just cover for the fear. “Oh my god, I can’t do this. I am too stupid, too clumsy, too feeble to figure out this pattern.” It’s hard to deal with in-your-face failure. What do I have for an hour-and-a-half of focused effort? Knotted yarn. At this point there is no mental talk about learning. Nope, it’s all about the stupid pattern, the yarn that knots too easily, and the wooden needles that grab the yarn.

I haven’t yet returned to the project. I’m knitting things I know how to do—recovering, I think.

Frustration and failure aren’t fun—valuable learning experiences they may be, but joyful they are not. That’s important for teachers to remember.

  • Elizabeth Templeton

    You are not alone. No, I have not knit this scarf. Knitting lace is enough for me. But a friend who also loves challenges knit this scarf. She made 4 or 5 false starts.

    You will pick it up again, I'm sure. My friend's advice is to knit some on it every day until it's done – so you'll have a steady dose of learning reinforcement!

  • Ike Shibley

    One of the most important elements of frustration is that we build new neuronal connections based on challenge. My bulwark against senility is the NY Times crossword puzzle and I have learned to appreciate the puzzles that I cannot complete because I know that these experiences are the best medicine against neuronal atrophy. Teaching requires continual vigilance to find assignments that challenge, without overwhelming, students. This constantly shifting target is one of the reasons that I remain vital as a teacher after 15 years.

  • Jeff Suzuki

    There's a quote whose source I'm trying to track, but it goes something like this: Successful people fail far more often than unsuccessful people.

    One of the questions I like to ask when I'm interviewing someone for a position is "What have you tried that hasn't succeeded?" Someone who's never failed has, to my mind, never really tried anything difficult.