Learning By Doing and The Development of Bad-Ass Skills

I've been thinking a lot about the learning-by doing model of 4-H programs and why this means so much to me. On first glance, it brings to mind the kind of traditional skills that can be modeled and learned through muscle memory--the feel of rising bread dough or the lathe turning just right for a skilled craftsman. And while I adore 4-H for the preservation of traditional skills, I also realize there's more to learning-by-doing than craftsmanship.

This is the diagram of learning-by-doing that we always see in 4-H curriculum:

And this second chart is from a recent article in Mind/Shift, showing the value of mistakes in various situations:

I like seeing the second image as a progression from the first, helping us to process the experience of making mistakes. 

When I consider my own background in comparison to these charts, I realize I spent most of my traditional schooling believing that every situation in my life was high-stakes. I didn't take risks and I didn't stretch. When I made sloppy mistakes, I was too upset with myself to find the learning moment in them. Any aha revelations left me feeling like my mistakes were so obvious that everyone must be laughing at me. If someone had suggested I sit down and consider what went wrong, I would have perceived this as a lecture, intended to punish me by making me feel even worse about what had happened.

The result? I stopped doing any activity at which I was not already accomplished. I quit trying to make any kind of music. I quit drawing. I quit painting. I quit chemistry. I quit math. I quit engineering.

The more things I quit, the more high-stakes it became for me to do well in the areas that remained. I had to do well in English and biology, not necessarily because I loved them, but because they were all I had left.

This is one reason I love 4-H so much for the kids in my life. Yes, 4-H can be very competitive. And yes, there are kids who treat every 4-H situation as high-stakes. That happens. Still, at the core of the program, each project requires that kids set their own goals. Why are you taking this project? What do you want to learn? And then? List the steps you're going to take to get to where you want to be!

I did not learn this in my childhood. It never occurred to me that I could develop a step-by-step process for meeting my own goals. Honestly, it never occurred to me that it was okay for me to have my own goals. I was too busy trying to meet the expectations of others to even consider this. In 4-H, kids have the opportunity to learn how to learn what they want to learn.

This is a serious bad-ass skill.

Of course, in 4-H, we call this a life skill. Just know that, in your head, you can substitute bad-ass every time 4-H uses life as an adjective--and then the words start to pop. 

In fact, 4-H has an entire chart of bad-ass skills:

And this skill, about which I have been gushing? It's listed quietly on this busy, little chart as, "learning to learn."

It's just buried there, as if it's something that should be important--and therefore is not--like an ingredient on the label of a healthy cereal.

But think of it! Honestly, this is the heart of education.

Anything you want to learn? This is how you do it. Break it down. Set goals. Practice. Learn from mistakes. Start from where you are. ANYTHING YOU WANT TO LEARN.

Can you feel the optimism?
The hope?
The excitement?


The world is your oyster.

(Yes, kids. That's a real phrase. Look it up just because you can!)

And what if we still want to limit ourselves to things we already know? 

Well, that's when we start projects off the beaten path, things that sound too fun to miss. Dutch oven cooking. Photography. Guinea pigs. Robotics. Gardening. Poultry. Filmmaking. First Aid. 

We don't always have to play to win. Sometimes we can play to learn--and when we find that awesome, creative, learning space, we can begin making sense of (even delighting in) our own mistakes. And then? The world just opens up. (Like an oyster, yeah?)  

Anything is possible.


  1. Love this! The most valuable thing we can learn in life is how to learn. Like you, I shut down in math--and consequently in the sciences--and in all PE activities, art, and music because nothing in my education encouraged to take risks. It was all about getting good grades. When I was in college, I realized it was possible to take courses without having to worry about a grade! I audited astronomy, took ballet and fencing. How enriching! We need more of that.


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