Sticky Learning

Knowledge + Experience + Purpose = Sticky Learning

Knowledge: There are tons of things that I need to know in order to become a good gardener. I need to know about the seasons, and the weather. I need to know about soil types and how acid or alkaline my soil is. I need to know the names and types of plants, when to plant them and the kind of weather conditions they prefer. I need to know what pests are likely to attack them, and how to fend off these attacks. There are various ways in which I can find all this knowledge: mostly, I read a lot of gardening books and listen to other people who have more experience at gardening than me. All this knowledge will stand me in good stead when I come to the doing bit of gardening, but knowing is not the same as understanding. I can know something and still not get it.

There are other bits of knowledge that are not essential, as such, but which are of great interest if you like that kind of thing. I could get by without knowing the Latin names of the plants that I grow, but there is something rather wonderful about the way that these words filter into my brain and stick there. I particularly love the contrast between the ‘official’ names of plants, and the ‘common’ ones by which they have come to be known: Nigella damascena a.k.a. Love-in-a-Mist. What could be prettier than that?

* * * * * * *

Experience: There are tons of things that I need to experience in order to become a good gardener. Experience gives me insights that no amount of reading could ever do. I have to experiment with the process for myself, not just take it as read that what they say in the books will work for me. I can know exactly what plants will grow, and when I should plant them. I can follow all the growing instructions to the letter. But if a slug happens along just after I plant out my seedlings, I will still end up with a row of stumps. Different sources offer me different answers about how best to protect my plants from slugs. I can read up on all the research, and gain lots of knowledge about the options, but it is only experience that tells me which one will work in my context.

There is a lot of failure involved in learning through experience, which I think might be why some people get frightened about it. But to me, my experiments and my failures are a crucial, critical part of me learning how to become a gardener. Experience gives me a sense of agency and creativity – I want see how it works for myself, rather than always being told what I should do. Oftentimes, when you experiment, you find out something you would have missed if you had stuck to the knowledge in books. For instance, I have a whole heap of Love-in-a-Mist that has seeded itself in my garden path. The books tell me that you must ‘sow it direct’, and that it will not take transplanting. But I fancied Nigella on my allotment, so I dug it up from the path and it is now growing happily with my strawberries. Go figure.

* * * * * * *

Purpose: I need a powerful sense of Purpose in order to become a good gardener. No one can force me to have a sense of purpose, but without it, I am lost. My motivation to learn would quickly dwindle; I would hang up my gardening gloves and go do something that gives a faster return. In order for the learning to stick, or rather for me to stick at the thing I am learning, I must feel I am doing it for a good reason. This is especially so when what I am learning is not immediately gratifying. With gardening there is a mighty big gap between the knowing and the doing and the end result. I will not pull my first carrot, pick my first peas, or cut my first flowers for months after I have set them to grow. Only my powerful sense of purpose keeps me going as I pull yet more couch grass out of the soil.

To have a sense of purpose, I need a powerful imagination. I must be able to look ahead in time, and imagine how my efforts will look or feel when they come to fruition. I must be able to visualise a vegetable and flower filled plot, resplendent with food for my family’s table. (Sometimes this is very hard to do, which is when I vanish to the garden centre for a bit of retail therapy.) My sense of purpose is my intrinsic motivation – a magical, powerful and personal force that no amount of carrots or sticks could ever replicate. Motivation is the great beating heart of learning.

* * * * * * *

= Sticky Learning: Sometimes I learn something and, almost instantly, it vanishes from my brain. Other times, the things that I learn are like goosegrass, that sticky weed you can throw at someone, so it sticks to their clothes. Once I have learned them, they will never leave me, until I am food for the worms that populate the soil. For learning to stick, I must have the what, the how and the why. I need Knowledge and Experience and Purpose, not one or another on its own. Knowledge without experience is flat and one-dimensional. Experience without knowledge is a very slow way to progress. And both of these without Purpose seem pretty meaningless to me. I’m not sure if this makes me a Traditionalist, a Progressivist, or simply Weird, but I’d be daft to waste good gardening time debating it.

Sticky Weed a.k.a. Galium aparine

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5 Responses to Sticky Learning

  1. teachwell says:

    Or maybe just human?


  2. Brian says:

    Nigella damascena a.k.a. Love-in-a-Mist. What could be prettier than that?

    “Berberis Darwinii ” ?


  3. jillberry102 says:

    Really enjoyed this, Sue – and I am not a gardener….


  4. Amir says:

    Hi Sue, I enjoyed reading this post. I think the three points correlate quite tightly with Dan Pink’s theory on motivation, in the sense that for people to be motivated, they need to have mastery (or knowledge, in your context), autonomy (which perhaps ties in with experience in the sense that we trust those who have the most to get on with the job we ask them to do) and purpose.

    This model – in your words or Dan Pink’s – has a lot to offer in the education world…


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