Postage Stamp Worlds

In the course of having one of my knitting designs reviewed by a technical editor recently, I discovered that I knit wrong. Literally: my basic knit stitch is wrong, which means that everything I do has a gauge that is nigh impossible to duplicate with a normal knit stitch. The functional difference of how you end up doing what I’ve been doing versus knitting correctly is tiny. Minute. Miniscule. And apparently critical.

As I was telling this story to some friends over lunch last week, one of them mused that knitting is a postage-stamp world. Which is to say, if you look at it from a distance, it doesn’t look like much, but when you get up close, the level of detail is incredible and you can fall right through into a world with far more depth than you realized. I love that concept and I think it’s widely applicable. Most specialized labor, hobbies, artisan work, whatever, is made up of these postage stamp worlds, and recognizing that is probably the first step to developing a genuine interest in and respect for the work that other people do.

The concept of postage stamp worlds also seems like a darned good construct to keep in mind if you’re about to embark on learning something new, especially in the information age. This is a bit ironic, perhaps, but I think the information age is actually not all that fabulous for passing on expert knowledge…yet. Most beginning internet learning is happening at that flat, distance level with no help from Mary Poppins to pop the artwork into life (or vice versa). Sure, I can pull up Youtube videos and download ebooks and PDFS and even order books from my library without leaving my dining room table, and all of these things are valuable learning tools. This is how I learned to knit. Which I did completely wrong.

My point is that just because you can kajigger something to do more or less what you want it to do doesn’t mean that there isn’t a standard or more efficient way to do that thing. And sometimes the autodidactic among us end up disguising our ignorance of the underlying principles when we find those Frankensteinian workarounds, only to have that ignorance backfire on us in hilarious and stress-inducing minor catastrophes when we try to do more advanced work. Learning from an expert in person tends to call attention to such discrepancies pretty quickly, but learning from experts in a context where they have the ability to see our work, note a misunderstanding, and put us back on the path to understanding a core concept of their particular postage stamp is not an experience that is characteristic of learning a new thing from the internet.

Again: yet. I suspect that we can both make the internet a better learning environment and become better internet learners, and to that end, I’m thinking about these questions:

  • What questions should you ask when learning something new?
  • Are there general guidelines we can recommend for teachers interested in creating static lessons for beginners?
  • How do we best help n00bs find experts?
  • How do you determine that a teacher is, in fact, an expert, rather than a hack who knows a few things more than you?
  • What is the best technology for connecting teachers and students working together remotely?

I have a few thoughts about the first two after this experience, so…more on that later. The latter three questions aren’t really my forte, though. Thoughts?

 

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