Procedural Skills as the foundation for learning. Learning to learn.

When you learn how to tie your shoelaces, you’re learning more than how to tie your own laces. You’re learning a skill that you can apply to all shoes. At a push, you can apply it to wrapping presents or the rigging of a boat. Procedural learning is essentially that which is learnt by repeating complex tasks over and over again. It’s the foundation of all learning.

This is something that i’d somewhat overlooked when passing comments around the state of University education yesterday, and a point that Zoe made well:

“I worry that we are painting all procedural/functional skills with the same ‘it’s too specific’ brush. I can hardly think of a thing I do in a day that didn’t require procedural skills first, and I’m very wary of under-valuing them.” (

She is right, of course. My mistake was listening to myself too much. In training, we often talk about training ‘basic skills’ and then about ‘added value’ training. I’d imagined that the basic skills were somehow separate from the advanced ones. I’d failed to realise that the procedural skills are so intimately tied in with the ability to master more sophisticated outcomes.

It’s right that mastering a specific piece of software, like Word is, in itself, a skill with limited application, but having mastered one word processing programme, it’s much easier to learn a second one, or at least, it is if the underlying paradigm is the same. For example, mastering Director, which used a timeline to sequence events, made it easier to master Flash, which does the same. Principles and concepts that we learn in one area are applicable elsewhere.

Clearly there are progressive levels of mastery of skills, and levels of analysis and meta analysis that are required for more sophisticated reasoning decision making, but the foundations are procedural. Advanced reasoning and critical thinking may feel like more of an art than a process, but they have foundations in learning that has been carried out the hard way, through repetition and rote.

It’s a reminder to me to engage more with the respective experts in these fields. Sometimes we can be blinkered by our own, immediate, experience, and fail to recognise the value in collaboration. We say something a thousand times and start to think that it’s true, whilst in fact, by changing our boundaries, by listening to others, we can shift the boundaries and our own thinking.

Our own learning, from tying our shoelaces to writing a book, is a long journey that we never complete.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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