Updated: Aug 29, 2019

Cognitive Trail Blazing - Go Where You've Never Gone Before

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Under what circumstances would a challenging or difficult learning process be desirable? Why would we view trial and error or even tripping along the way as positive? Cognitive psychologists suggest that the harder it is to learn something, as long as that learning is actually possible (progress is made even if slow), the stronger and more sustained the learning. This is called desirable difficulty (Brown, 2014).

In the book Make it Stick by Peter Brown, Mark McDaniel and Henry Roediger, there is a story about Bonnie Blodgett, a long time journalist and self-taught ornamental gardener. She is known for her website The Garden Letter, writes a blog called “Blundering Gardner”, is the author of four books and writes for Midwest Homes. In Make it Stick, Bonnie is described as “in constant argument with a voice in her head keeps nattering about all the ways her latest whim is sure to go haywire and embarrass her” (Brown, 2014, p. 93). According to Brown, Bonnie is both a woman of “strong aesthetic sensibilities” and one of “epic doubts”. The book likens her learning style to “leap-before-you-look-because-if-you-look-first-you-probably-won’t-like-what-you-see.”

Pack Your Gear and Head for the Horizon

“Blundering means that you get going on your project before you have figured out how to do it in the proper way, before you know what you’re getting into. For me, the risk of knowing what you’re getting into is that it becomes an overwhelming obstacle to getting started.” Bonnie Blodgett

What Peter Brown and his co-authors want to demonstrate through Bonnie’s story is that sometimes the difficulty in the journey, the struggle for learning, builds stronger and more sustained knowledge. When Bonnie started out she had no professional abilities as far as gardening went, but was driven by a deep desire to create a beautiful space in the yard of her home. She accepted that she did not know what she was doing and forged forward anyway and in fact published her exploits, blunders, and triumphs for the world to see. She was candid about her mistakes, and allowed the readers to not only learn along with her, but perhaps to consider their own mistakes just another step along the journey.

Today Bonnie is considered a master in the field of ornamental gardening and along with her writing, consults with other professionals to provide ideas and advice. Bonnie’s story of courageously letting her passion drive her learning, learning from her mistakes, and when it comes to gaining skill, leaping before she looked, is an example of generative learning.

Just Do It

Generative Learning: Style of learning that incorporates existing knowledge with new ideas based on experimentation and open-mindedness. This style of learning encourages individual and team creativity, resulting in a new way of viewing old methods. Organizations rely on the generative learning style to adjust to changes in the market, technology and society”

I can look back and see in my life many episodes or eras of generative learning, when my passion, desire or need to learn outweighed my hesitation to leap into the unknown. I taught myself many things equestrian and how to train a horse, I taught myself about gemstones and mind/body healing, and I taught myself how to build an extensive website using Microsoft Frontpage which presently collects virtual dust on my hard drive. For me, building this blog, not previously knowing what an RSS feed was, not knowing how to publish the blog in the first place, not knowing what resources are available, not knowing how to use my own domain name, in fact learning from scratch and just figuring it out as I go, is an example of generative learning. And I have much more to learn!

I'm sure there are many more areas of learning and experience I would explore if I took Bonnie's approach. In fact this blog was launched long ago in my head, but finally found it's way into reality at the behest of my graduate school professor. And as Bonnie was the Bumbling Gardner, I may very well be the Bumbling Blogger.

How about you? When have you let the unknown just be what it is, and forged ahead anyway? Do you think you learning was stronger because you learned as you went?

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

© 2019 by Lisa Holloway

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