Mastery

Some years ago an expert paddler taught me how to roll a kayak. She taught me in a manner that I recall even now, years later, when practicing and re-learning the sequence of movements and state of mind that brings a kayak upright. She overcame her own expert blind spot, taught a difficult skill in bits and pieces, and did so with patience, empathy, and lots of encouragement. Somehow she had thought through each component of the act of bringing a kayak upright, and taught each component in isolation starting with the most difficult - outright terror. There is little more terrifying than submerged entrapment in an upside-down kayak. She knew we needed to start there, because nothing else would be learned until the mind was calm.

She stood beside my boat in a warm swimming pool, instructing me to roll upside down and to stay there as long as I was comfortable. When I was ready to come upright, I would slap the exposed underside of the boat to signal her to right it. We practiced this repeatedly until I could stay upside-down and remain calm. Gradually, I began to stay upside down for longer periods of time, until I needed to take a breath. It was quiet under water, and very enjoyable for the moments I could remain without a breath.

The next step in learning to roll the kayak, surprisingly, was not to attempt to do so from an upside-down position. Mel had me practice just the final part of the roll, which consisted of pulling the boat beneath the body while lifting the head. We practiced this repeatedly until the movement was smooth, effective, and balanced.

The weeks went on like this, with Mel teaching me some small part of the kayak roll, and me practicing it to perfection but never understanding how it all came together. Eventually, after many weeks in the water, Mel asked me to flip upside-down, to hang out for a while underwater, and when I was ready, to roll up. If I failed I knew that she was there next to me, and that she would help me to right the boat. The psychological effect of this was enormous. I didn’t need to panic if I couldn’t put all of the movements together successfully - she would be there to help out.

I did it - I rolled the kayak upright under my own power. Then I did it again, and again, and again. Every component part of the roll came together beautifully and so effortlessly it seemed that the kayak rolled itself. After some practice I rolled the boat without the paddle, using only my hands. It all seemed so natural, yet I realize that I wouldn’t have found the movement myself without expert guidance. Even now, I go through the steps that Mel took me through years ago. I start out the paddling season by hanging upside down in my boat, then I come upright and practice just the final movement of the roll. Eventually I put it all together and remind myself how to roll the kayak, bit by bit.

Perhaps Mel had expert instruction in how to teach the kayak roll, or perhaps she spent a lot of time identifying exactly which steps a novice to needed to learn, and in what sequence. However she learned, her teaching was very effective. She took a complex and difficult task, broke it down into component skills, and taught each in isolation before integrating all back together again into a whole.

As I develop training materials I’ll keep Mel’s valuable lesson in mind. It will take some effort on my part to identify each component skill that is needed to develop mastery in high-throughput sequence analysis. I’ll need to identify others who have taught the same, and determine whether they have effectively ferreted out each component skill or whether they’re blinded by their own expertise. I’ll also need to find a way to help learners practice skills until they become second-nature. I’ll also include time for discussion - about when and where to apply a skill, which tools to use in different situations, and what features are shared by many sequencing experiments. All of this needs to fit into a two-day time frame, which is especially challenging.

Written on November 26, 2016