When you have been responsibly employed for decades, you are accustomed to thinking of yourself as competent. So learning something new can be unsettling, because for a period of time you are less than competent. In the past few months I have been challenged to learn – and then implement – new skills. It has been stressful, but I am on the road to new competencies.
For me, the best way to learn is either by doing or by teaching.
Experiential learning is an established approach that I put into practice when I became a VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) volunteer through Community Action. I spent two days in class, and another 20 hours in practice lab and study. Then I passed the Basic certification exam with 100-percent correct on the first try. It felt good! I had to wait more than a month until it was time to begin volunteering. My first day as a tax preparer was an anxious one, but I happily discovered that I was knowledgeable and that I could do it. My second day was easier, and with each new client I reinforced my skills and increased my confidence. I have no idea why I thought it would be a good idea to learn to prepare taxes – and then do it as a volunteer, but I find the work to be oddly satisfying. (Interestingly, after nearly 40 hours of education I am still not qualified to prepare my own taxes, which are complex enough to require Advanced certification.)
While in graduate school, I worked as a Teaching Assistant. The title is misleading as TAs were entirely responsible for the classes they taught. We prepared the syllabi and assignments, gave the lectures, led the critiques, and determined the grades. That is a lot of responsibility. One of my professor-mentors told me, “The best way to learn is to teach.” I found that to be true back then, and it continues to be true today. I have been using Microsoft applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, and Outlook) for decades. Ten years ago I taught free two-hour applications workshops at my public library. That was easy. Last fall I started teaching day-long Microsoft application workshops for the local community college. I feel a greater responsibility for these classes, in part because students pay to take them. Furthermore, instead of two-hour basic classes, I teach seven-hour workshops at the basic, intermediate, and advanced level. To do that successfully, I cannot just “wing it.” I need to be very prepared, and still remain flexible. I need to study and practice so I can present the information with ease and in an organized manner. Not surprising, my preparation for teaching the classes has dramatically increased my knowledge of the software – well beyond the skills I had acquired by using it for many years.
So, study followed by doing is a very good way to learn. Doing followed by study and teaching is equally worthwhile.