DRMacIver's Notebook

Building and Rebuilding Foundational Skills

Building and Rebuilding Foundational Skills

I have a problem: I'm kinda OK at statistics.

Why is this a problem? Being kinda OK seems... kinda OK, right?

Well, it would be, but the problem isn't that I have an intermediate level of statistical skill. The problem is that I have a broad range of statistical skill, all of which I'm kinda OK at. I'm kinda OK at elementary statistics, and I'm kinda OK at advanced statistics too.

This is a real problem for learning more, because it is hard to relearn basics because they feel too basic for my skill level.

I have another problem: Climbing is a fun sport that makes a good social activity and works on a number of strength skills that I would like to work on. Also I give myself a back injury 100% of the time I do it, because my ability to climb is much greater than my skill at climbing, because I'm hypermobile and have a decent strength to body weight ratio, and the result is that despite some things feeling easy, I do them badly and this results in me inadvertently harming myself while doing them.

All of these share a common theme: It is possible for something to be easy while still being bad at it, and this is especially true with foundational skills, where you've built capabilities on top of them, and going back and relearning the basics is hard and boring.

In order to get good at statistics, I'd need to grind a bunch of exercises that I frankly feel are beneath me. I'm probably going to try (despite my complicated feelings about mathematics) because being good at statistics is important for me professionally and spiritually, and I'll never get good at it until I sort out the basics, and also being bad at those basics risks me tripping up in stupid ways.

In order to get good at climbing, I'd need to very carefully (and probably with supervision) try far easier routes than I can manage, and stop far sooner than it seems like I can. I'd have to deliberately hold myself back until I was much better at the basics than I am, despite my ability to do more. I don't value climbing enough at present to do this, so I probably will just avoid climbing.

Anyway, this is is why I'm currently restarting the first week of Couch to 5K despite having completed it relatively easily.

Here's another problem: I obviously breathe badly.

I'm not fully sold on the Buteyko method, which encourages you to breathe less and entirely through your nose, but I obviously mouth breathe at night based on my sleep quality and dry mouth in the morning, and my peak flow numbers aren't great. I'd like to work on this to the point where I breathe through my nose unconsciously and easily, even while sleeping. It probably won't change my life in the way that the Buteyko method promises (though it sure would be nice if it did!), but at the very least it might improve my sleep quality.

Breathing is definitely a foundational skill, and it's one I'm bad at, so I'd like to work on it, and working on breathing is deathly boring.

This is where I link in three previous tools:

I can nose breathe just fine while at rest. I can complete couch to 5k week one (consistent of eight repetitions of a 60 second run followed by a 90 second walk) just fine. What I absolutely cannot do is complete Couch to 5K week one while nasal breathing. I can just about manage the first run and then I am wrecked.

I think this is the way to rebuild foundations, and one of the core reasons why learning a different skill is often essential for progressing at your current goal: By transferring to a different context where the foundational skill is no longer easy, it becomes a thing that you can now actively work at. Working on a foundation in its existing context is often too easy to be possible, so the way to work on it is to make it harder.

I was in fact, already considering restarting week one of Couch to 5K, for two other reasons, both of which are also about foundational skills.

As well as breathing, I'm also bad at walking.

Yes, I'm aware that these are both ridiculous things to be bad at. I think a lot of you reading this are probably bad at them too though. As I said, we have a widespread lack of the basic skills of being a human being.

Specifically, I have quite flat feet and weak arches, and a bunch of (probably) related joint pain. I've tried wearing arch support shoes and my considered opinion is that it was an expensive waste of time. (Well, it was a good experiment).

A slightly less fringe (but still fringe) opinion is that the solution to this is actually to have less arch support, and to wear barefoot shoes that are designed to protect your feet without supporting them, because this causes you to actually develop your muscles rather than weaken them.

This seems worth a shot, and I was noticing that my ankles were already starting to hurt a bit as a result of week one. I don't want to end up in the situation like with climbing where my ability to do a run exceeds my ability to do a run without injuring myself, so this too seems like a thing I could reasonably make harder in order to work on the foundational skills of.

Even without these foundations of breathing and walking, I was still thinking it might be worth repeating Couch to 5K, because I disagree with some of its philosophical premises.

Couch to 5K is designed to ramp up the difficulty level by making you run more, and more consistently. I personally think it ramps up the difficulty too quickly. I basically agree with Sarah Perry's point in Body Pleasure:

[...] people enjoy exercise up to a certain level of intensity, which varies for each person. Most people who do low-intensity exercise feel better during the mild exertion. At the point when the body can no longer maintain levels of oxygen and (separately) lactate in the muscles, the exercise becomes so intense that basic affect (feeling good or feeling bad, the lowest-level evaluation of anything) plummets. Everybody feels terrible when they exercise too hard. Once people rest for a few minutes, they start feeling good again. However, this may not be enough such that people evaluate the entire experience as pleasurable.

Unfortunately, most on-ramps to exercise are at an intensity too high for previously-sedentary people to find them pleasurable. If people go to a fitness class, or focus on running a particular distance at a particular speed, they’ll likely miss the pleasure zone entirely. Refocusing on exercising only for one’s own individual pleasure, as slowly as one prefers, and only at intensities that are pleasurable, is more likely to motivate repeat and habitual exercising. At that point, the enjoyment of exercise pleasure can build on itself, motivating longer and longer intervals of experiencing the pleasure. I summarize Ekkekakis et al.’s result as: “learn to exercise out of extreme selfish laziness.”

I was a little skeptical about doing Couch to 5K because one of the things I'm trying to work on at the moment is to enjoy exercise, and honestly I don't enjoy running. I'd already been vaguely considering restarting week one so that I could get to the point where it was pleasurable rather than merely endurable.

I liked David Laing's point the other day:

Advice on how to get better at a given thing should often be replaced with advice on how to take more pleasure in doing that thing.

Pleasure doesn't lead directly to learning, but it leads to volume, which leads to learning. Also pleasure is an end in itself.

I don't know exactly how to create pleasure in a thing, but I suspect fluidity is a huge part of it. There is something intrinsically pleasurable about being good enough at something hard that you can do it automatically and reliably, and I think fluidity is extremely helpful for being able to play with a skill.

I suspect this points to a general reason why we are so often bad at foundations: We treat the point at which we should progress as to when we can do the thing, when in fact we should be progressing when it's pleasurable to do it (or at least fluid where pleasure is impossible). This ties in to the idea that you are not good at doing a thing until you are able to do it reliably rather than able to do it at all.

If you progress as soon as you clear some minimum bar of being able to do it, then what happens is that the skill will get progressively more and more frustrating as you move up it until you hit some "natural" limit where your frustration exceeds your willingness to progress, and you can no longer easily go back and work on the foundations, so you conclude that you're now as good as you're goign to get.

For reasons, I was reading about Bloom's 2 sigma problem recently, which is often used as evidence for the superiority of private tutoring over general classes, but I found the description of mastery learning, which is the specific system being compared, especially interesting:

Mastery learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (e.g., 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. If a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information and then tested again. This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery, and they may then move on to the next stage.

In comparison, I think most of our school based learning techniques are like Couch to 5K: They assume that there is some straightforward time frame on which you can expect people to progress, and you should progress as long as you can just about manage the previous level, and failure to progress is a sign of significant failure.

How much of the 2 sigma system is about the benefits of individual instruction, and how much of it is just about giving people the time to build their foundations before progressing?

This all fits in well to the framework of the Fully General System for Learning to Do Hard Things, but I think I have previously neglected something important: It's not at all obvious what hard and easy mean in this context. I suspect the threshold for progression should be set much higher than I previously would have set it.

Couch to 5K fits pretty well into the Fully General System, in that it repeatedly takes something that you can do (Week N) and makes it slightly harder (Week N + 1), eventually culminating in being able to do a half hour run. It seems pretty good, for a lot of people, in that it gets them to do something that would previously have seemed unattainable, but I'm no longer convinced that either it or the Fully General System are good enough for that.

I think this notion of foundational skills, and the question of mastery progression, point to a common flaw in Couch to 5K and the Fully General System: They are overly narrowly focused on the goal, and don't care about what possible future progress they burn along the way to getting there.

So I'm still going to try to do hard things, and I'm still going to complete Couch to 5K, but in doing so my aims are not merely to do a half hour run but to do a half hour run while breathing entirely through my nose, wearing barefoot shoes, and enjoying it, and all the while paying attention to the process and using it to learn more about progression and skill development in general.