The illusion of technique

Having just eclipsed the 300 post mark for this blog I find that there have been so many interesting topics I’ve explored and fascinating ways I’ve entertained them. This post was written four years ago, and I am still charmed by some of the phrasings. Its amazing that I can come up with ‘new’ things to say after 300 essays, but I do. And yet sometimes its just fine to revisit the golden oldies, as if things past still mattered. Here’s one such tasty bit, in all its ancient splendor ๐Ÿ™‚ :


I have always been fascinated with this idea. I have kicked around different ways of looking at it and I see with increasing clarity that taking a stand on it says something about both how we practice our own art and how we teach others. So of course this is one more thing I care about and use as an excuse for further howling at the moon. And if its a burr caught in my fur and not anyone elseโ€™s, or if the burr I feel is warmest cuddly bedding for others, I have no complaints. Iโ€™m not about to insist that you all feel my discomfort. Just putting some thoughts out there that others might also find interesting. Ignore me at will.


Learning technique is something like walking toward a closed door. We have a key, but we also need to understand how to use it. The keyโ€ฆ

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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.
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2 Responses to The illusion of technique

  1. tenorjazz says:

    More often than not, when I’m teaching someone a technique or how to use a tool in pottery, music or computers I see the person taking step by step notes on what I’m doing. It also surprises me when there are no followup questions or discussions. I use to walk away thinking that either I’m a really good teacher or that everything went over their heads and they were too embarrassed to say anything. What I discovered is that they don’t think like I do and are only looking at the detail and not the bigger picture. So now they have the knowledge to do that single task, but not much more.

    For example: Someone wants to put a “slotted” screw into a piece of wood.
    1. Find a “slotted/flat” screw.
    2. Find a slotted screwdriver.
    3. Find a piece of wood.
    4. Put the pointed end of the screw towards the wood.
    5. Put the blade of the screwdriver in the slot of the screw.
    6. Twist the screwdriver in a clockwise direction while applying pressure towards the wood.

    All fine and good for slotted screws but what if:
    1. The screw has two slots in the shape of a cross?
    2. Instead of a slot(s) there is a square, hex or star shaped whole?
    3. You didn’t know there were square, hex and star shaped screwdrivers?
    3. You only had access to “slotted/flat” screwdrivers.
    4. What if the piece of wood splits?
    5. What if you wanted to put a screw into metal?
    6. Is there a different screw for metal, wood, plastic and so on?

    I could go on about things like why are you trying to put a screw into wood, will it be exposed to weather, is it structural or are you just going to hang a picture from it. Of course the first six steps will get a screw into a piece of wood and that may deal with the immediate problem, but the next time you want to put a screw into something will those six steps be enough?

    I agree that learning a technique or how to use a tool should also be about understanding that tool or technique with enough depth so that you can apply your knowledge to similar or completely different situations. This is a key to creativity and finding new ideas and solutions to complex problems. You can use this idea to what I like to think of as improvised pottery. Like improvised music, you use your knowledge and experience of techniques and tools to create variations of the original “melody” or to go in completely new directions.

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