Can we learn faster as adults? What should we do with adult learning to avoid this “al dente” curse?
Kids have a super power. When they're very young, they don't know Monday from Sunday. And it's this lack of knowledge that also gives them an upper hand when they're learning. Unlike adults who are clear about how the result needs to look like, just about anything will do with a child.
How do we take that child-like attitude and use it to speed up adult learning?
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3) The Curse Of “Al Dente”.
My Sicilian friend, Luca, was trying to get me to understand the concept of “Al dente”.
“Al dente” is when pasta goes through a brief cooking time, and instead of being limp, like noodles, it's firm to the bite. I had no clue what Luca was talking about. We'd made pasta until that point and cooked it until it was limp and soft.
I wasn't sure if I'd eaten pasta that was “Al dente” when I ate at restaurants. Maybe they served it “Al dente”; perhaps they didn't.
I was at sea when he explained the concept to me. As far as I was concerned, I loved pasta, and the results I'd gotten so far were perfect. But only perfect in my mind.
Young kids also have their benchmark of perfection
They want to do the best possible task until they run out of time or energy. If you give kids the task of drawing a picture, they won't try to get it to “Al dente” perfection. The first reason is they already think their current level is more than acceptable, but they have no aspiration to get to the perfect level.
The main point is that this level of “just getting things done” is only in very young children.
At one point, I used to go to schools to do a guest drawing session. In classrooms with very young kids, almost all of them would frantically draw. They'd then submit their work as though they'd just completed a masterpiece.
When allowed to draw yet another artwork, there'd be no drop in that level of enthusiasm. You'd be left holding a bunch of paintings that would find their way to the display board, but all of them were squiggles and—if you really want to hear the truth—the quality varied from “pretty average” to “awful.”
This is not the way a six or seven-year-old approaches the same task
By the time a kid has crossed that early stage threshold, she's now developing an “Al dente” taste. Suddenly it seems that her cousin can draw better than her. So can her mother or brother. The tiniest stream of so-called perfectionism and judgement enters the space where there was none before.
If that seven-year-old is taken away from an area of drawing to some other activity like woodworking or sailing, they once again revert to less judgmental behaviour because not everyone around them is doing the same. In their case, the 70% result is good enough. They don't need to get to any particular level of perfection.
Adults, however, want everything they touch to be “Al dente.”
You start to teach an adult how to use Photoshop, and they want to get results almost immediately. Cooking, dancing, woodwork, or sailing—it's “Al dente, Al dente, Al dente”. Any other outcome is entirely unacceptable. If the adult goes past that point, they usually do because they're told to persevere or have grit.
Children don't learn faster than adults.
They're just more hopeless at seeing the perfect result. Hence, for them, almost any outcome will do. They've given it their best, and that's all that matters. They'll go back, do it again and again and again. Which is exactly what the adult won't do.
The adult will try to fix the piece in front of them, and that's just a wasted exercise. No matter what you're working on, you're better off getting several average results than one fluke good result.
With every iteration, a kid learns to fix some error.
Sometimes, the last piece of work is the same as the next, but with several bad to average iterations, the kid figures out what needs fixing. Armed with their lack of distraction and intense attention span, they can get better much faster.
They're still pretty lousy at learning stuff, and an adult can quickly master a task in a fraction of the time than it takes a kid. However, the adult doesn't want to live with the errors. On the other hand, the kid is happy to keep going back time and time again. And in doing so creates the illusion of improvement.
What should we do with adult learning to avoid this “Al dente” curse?
We should recognise that “Al dente” is not the problem. Now that I can identify what it feels like to eat pasta “Al dente”, I can't go back to eating well-cooked pasta anymore. Hence, perfection isn't the main issue. Instead, what needs to be considered with adult education is the benchmark.
If you're drawing, writing, sailing etc., instead of working on the entire project, the benchmark should be small and doable.
For example, if you're learning to play badminton, the benchmark isn't the game, let alone the set. Instead, it's just how you tackled the smash shots—or the high shots—or how you worked your way around the court. Each one of those is a separate, individual benchmark.
When an adult stops seeing the whole picture and is given a tiny bit, they become capable of dealing with a less than perfect result and then moving to an “Al dente” situation.
Children don't learn faster than adults.
They don't. Instead, we, as adults, change the way we teach kids. And in doing so, we inspire, encourage and put systems in place to get them to succeed. We help them get up again when they stumble, and they keep bouncing back.
If you had a teacher who bent down to your level and cared about how you could understand and apply things, you would also progress quickly. If you had a trainer that designed your learning for a distracted “attention span” you'd find yourself moving ahead much faster.
The next time you hear someone saying that kids learn faster than adults, don't correct them.
They're just spouting what they've heard someone say before. However, when teaching another adult, you will need to consider these three points. If you're learning, you'll need to figure out that the teaching world isn't as wonderful as it should be, and it's not your fault. Given the imperfection of things, you will keep up and beat any kid at learning.
Kids don't learn faster than adults. They aren't more persistent. It's just a myth. If you want to learn some skill today, it's time to get started.