Old dog, new tricks, pt. 2

My conversations last week with Ben Carter were fantastic and really eye opening. As I said in the first installment of this recap blog posting, “the best conversations are the ones where you leave with something new”. You learn something. You are changed by it…… Which is what I tried to describe in that post. The conversation helped open my eyes. I was doing things with my pots and I hadn’t quite figured out why this direction mattered to me. There were things about myself that were opaque rather than transparent. And also, as I look back on the challenges I have faced, I see that the things I have learned have changed me in sometimes dramatic ways. I am not a fixed being. Not only my art evolves, but I do. And the change that unfolds is often a mystery to me. I don’t always know where I am going, and looking back I don’t always know how I got here. The world itself also changes around me and I sometimes need to adapt to the different context just to keep afloat. The world itself pressures me to change. I am not absolutely independent from my circumstances. What I am relates to what I have learned…..

Which also suggests another interesting aspect of the conversation that Ben led us to. At one point in our internet exchanges a few years ago we had been talking about how students learn, and what this means from a neuro-psychological standpoint. (See also pt.3 and pt.4) Ben had linked to some interesting research in neuroscience and there was plenty to speculate on. In subsequent conversation I proposed a breakdown of generalized stages of learning that seemed to make sense in my own experience. Ben asked me to go over those in the interview. I kind of rushed through the details there, but here they are a bit more fleshed out:

It seems to me that the foundation to any learning is that we must first be in a position that new information can make a difference. We need to be open to change, for one. Essentially, we need to learn how to learn. We need to learn which sorts of experiences lead us forward and how they can be pursued and cultivated. Without this there is nowhere for us to go.

The next move outward from this is learning how to think. Basically this means our ability to make connections, to put things together and to understand contexts. It is the ability to make inferences and draw conclusions. Its the glue that sticks things together, what goes with what, how things can be grouped. Its the process into which ideas and objects can be plugged rather than those ideas and objects themselves, connecting the dots rather than the dots themselves. Its the context in which the dots come to mean anything at all. Thinking is the act of making things relate to one another.

Knowing how to do this doesn’t itself provide us with content. We need to also learn what to think. Knowing how to think isn’t a failsafe for plausible content. We need to know that ‘A’ before we can get to ‘B’. We need our starting points and groundwork. We need the assumptions that will then be built upon. And our formal education and cultural upbringing does its job to provide all these dots that we are then able to connect. We are first given lessons in swinging a hammer, and then we are given the instructions, the nails, and the pieces of wood to build things with. We are shown what things we can legitimately build. The ability to build starts to make sense when we are shown what things we can build. We are shown the ‘right things’ to think from our culture’s storehouse. We are shown what we are supposed to think, what other people think.

The next phase of learning seems to require that we step outside the stereotype, that we learn to think for ourselves. We know how to follow instructions, we know how to get from ‘A’ to ‘B’, but we don’t know what else to do. We are held up by the boundaries of the known. What we need to figure out is how to come up with ideas on our own, how NOT to follow the plans, but to use our own imagination. We need to learn to put our own imagination into practice rather than regurgitating the accepted wisdom. We need to learn that ‘A’ doesn’t just lead to ‘B’, but that it can lead to unexpected places as well.

“…how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.” Albert Einstein

So now we can make things up as we go. We can explore beyond the known world. The tight reins have been loosened. The next thing to learn is the direction we should take this ability, where we are going with it. We need to learn how to judge our own newfound freedom. We need to learn what new things to think that are not simply the hand-me-down heritage of other people’s ideas. We need to decide for ourselves what goes where, and why we should do it this way. We are no longer simply following the accepted rules. We are inventing the new horizon. We are mapping possibility. And to do these things we need to learn how to navigate by unknown stars and sail through unfamiliar waters….. We need to find these new things. But they only exist for us because we have kept the door of possibility ajar. We need to come to know, but in doing so admit how much there is left out still to uncover. We need to abandon the pretense of certainty and the inherent quality of cultural signposts.

“The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know — the less you know, the more you think you know.”― David T. Freeman

Of course its not a straight line sequence of modes to go through. Stages overlap, and depending on different areas of investigation we may be at different parts of our path. We can skip steps too, or make the leap precipitously. Its not a transition that occurs because our learning has necessarily reached a tipping point. We can be engaged in multiple phases of learning all at once and side by side. We can put the cart before the horse. And we can close the door to learning new things at any point. We can stop learning and shut the door on new possibility.

So of course what I set up is too simplistic, but looking at it this way gives a framework for assessing where we are at and what we have left to do. Knowing our unfinished self we can consciously aim ourselves into the future. We can stick with some things that seem to matter above all other possibility, or we can remain open to the potential for surprises………

So, to wind things back up and connect the dots from the earlier discussion, the sense of the unknown seems a potentially important thing, and it should be little surprise that our own selves provide the ultimate mystery. We shouldn’t know all there is to know. If we think we have ourselves all figured out it says less about who we really are (and can still be) and more about the stubbornness of our convictions…… We should not be a book that is already written. Keep scribbling in the pages. Keep adding new chapters. We should at least be willing to hold the door of possibility open.

“The world is changing at such a rapid rate that it’s turning us all into amateurs. Even for professionals, the best way to flourish is to retain an amateur’s spirit and embrace uncertainty and the unknown.” Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

We can continue to explore, follow those forbidden stars beyond the known horizon. We can change course on a whim, tack with the changing winds, and make rest in foreign ports. We can eat strange foods and converse with the natives of other lands. These are not the lands we grew up in. If you are old enough to remember a time before cell phones and the internet you will know just what I mean. The geography has also changed and the fellow travelers are now different too. We move to other places throughout our lives. We ourselves are not the same. We should learn to speak with these new acquaintances and partake of their customs. We can teach the old dog a few new tricks….. (If you get to listen to the interview with Ben, its an issue we also tried to cover when we talked about fixed and growth oriented mindsets.)

“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” Martha Nussbaum from an interview with Bill Moyers

Any of this make sense? Just what you were thinking already? Something new? A challenge? Something worth wrestling with? Something not too terribly interesting or important? Aren’t these the questions we have to decide on at almost every turn of our lives? How to make sense of the world around us? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be me? The more you express yourself and the more you reflect on these things you do the more you will seemingly figure out. And as David Freeman said, the more you do this the more you will discover that there is still a greater part to your life that escapes your understanding. Which I find incredibly humbling……..

Or maybe its important to simply do what you love and not question it. That’s okay too, I guess. Sometimes the tricks we know are enough. The point isn’t that you consciously have to change. Its that you have to believe that if you want something different it may very well still be possible. Its also facing up to the idea that an unchanging self is an illusion. We can’t help but change. So why not use that to our advantage? Why be fixated on stability alone? That’s all I’m saying…….

Just some things to think about!

Here are some pretty picture, the further exploration of the new handles I am putting on mugs. Now THIS is what gets me really excited!

DSCN3886b DSCN3887b DSCN3888b DSCN3890b DSCN3892b DSCN3894b DSCN3895b

Happy potting all!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Old dog, new tricks, pt. 2

  1. Gede Prama says:

    Well written. May peace be with you 🙂

  2. ericbotbyl says:

    Right on Carter. Especially like the quote from Martha Nussbaum. Last week sucked in the studio….trying new things…lots of good failure…learning a lot. I tossed a mixer full of ugly greenware at the end of the week. Just because you made it doesn’t mean its any good….right? This week was wonderful….where the pots just seem to throw themselves…day after day. You seem to be reading my mail.

    • Thanks Eric! Glad this week turned out better, though it seems like you have the right attitude that even last week was not a complete loss to you. “Good failure”, I like the sound of that! 😉

      Best of luck to you!

      Happy potting!

  3. Pingback: Show them your tricks, pt. 3 | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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