Baby Steps and the Abuse of Metaphors

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jackWhen people are in the early stages of a learning process and feeling a bit daunted, you’ll often hear them being encouraged to ‘take baby steps’. Now, actually, I think this is good advice (for reasons I’ll get onto later), but the way it is usually articulated completely misreads the metaphor. People say ‘baby steps – little by little’, as if the adjective means miniature version of normal steps, rather than steps as taken by babies.

This post from the Bulletproof Musician is a case in point. I feel a bit mean picking on it, since mostly I really admire the articles over there (and if you haven’t been over there before, I encourage you to spend the rest of the afternoon having a good browse). And actually, the basic point of the article – that small incremental changes in behaviour add up over time to significant improvements in performance – is sound. But that’s kaizen, not baby steps.

I have a young neighbour called Jack (pictured above at his 1st birthday party back in July) who has taught me a lot about baby steps over the summer of 2011. Well, pretty much everything I know, except the bits about myelin and learning I picked up from Dan Coyle. And one thing baby steps are not is incremental.

To begin with, there was the whole standing-up thing: wobble, totter, wobble, totter, land on bottom. Then it’s just one or two steps at a go: wobble, totter, step, totter, land on bottom; totter, wobble, totter, step, step, land on bottom. Each step took a great deal of preparation and was executed with huge determination and focus. And he seemed not at all perturbed that he only managed one or two steps at each attempt, but just got up and got going again.

At this stage, taking steps was an activity in its own right, but if he wanted to propel himself he went back to crawling. But one day he suddenly gave up crawling, and took to walking everywhere. Journeys were frequently interrupted, sometimes by his well-rehearsed land-on-bottom routine, other times by the new fall-over forward thing that comes along when you start to get forward momentum. (And sometimes there were tears when he landed with a bump, but they didn’t last long unless he was getting to the time to need food or sleep anyway.) But pottering around had enough intrinsic interest that the interruptions didn’t seem to be a source of frustration in themselves.

At first the gait was a bit ungainly, but only a few days later he was chuntering around the place at speed, now using walking as a means to pursue other goals (often ball related) rather than an end in its own right.

Several things were striking about this process. One was the tenacity with which he went at it. If one step at a time was today’s agenda, that’s what he stuck at. Another was the suddenness of change from one stage to another. Progress came as radical changes of state rather than as bit-by-bit improvements. (Note to new parents: this means you have less time to sort out a baby-proof garden fence than it looks when he’s at the wobble-totter stage.)

This is actually a great model for learning. The early stages of a new skill take a lot of repetition of basic elements. You can’t coordinate them very well, and you certainly can’t put them together to make anything like the ultimate goal. But if you go at it with tenacity and in a spirit of not minding that you can’t do it yet, you will suddenly reach a moment when it all starts to work. At that point you’ll still keep making mistakes, and you won’t be able to think about anything else at the same time, but you will have the delight of an emergent sense of potential competence. And then one day, if you’ve kept at it, you’ll wake up to find it’s not hard any more.

Now, I’m not knocking the kaizen model of steady improvement by incremental changes, but you can see it is a completely different process from baby steps. It’s a model for polishing, for challenging our own standards, for maintaining the pressure to push that man up a greasy pole.

I’m just asking that we be clear, when we encourage people in their learning, what kind of learning process we actually feel would be helpful for them at that moment. Misusing our learning metaphors confuses the issue and makes things harder than they should be.

As a postscript: I was talking to Jack’s mum, Chrissie, about this and she raised the question as to whether Jack’s approach to learning to walk was how all babies went about it, or whether it was a function of his particular personality. Good question. However, she also went on to say that she didn’t intend to have enough other babies to form a statistically significant sample, so I’d have to make do with anecdotal evidence.

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