Adult learning, Nonprofits

Project Runway: A Lesson in Adult Learning

Binge watching reality television provides a lot of time between the drama to think about learning. Such was the case when my daughter and I watched a season of Project Runway over the course of two weeks. It was my first deep dive into the world of high fashion design and catty criticisms about whether one contestant can stitch straight or not. The design side was amazing to see.

cut up shirt
Exhibit A: The shirt that did not make it.

I’ve sewed since in high school, though seldom anything I would wear. By the second show, I had pulled out fabric and a pattern and sewed a jacket. By the end, I had my computer propped on a box to be able to watch while sewing, and I was pulling shirts out of my closet and sketching patterns to try and replicate them. One is already in the scrap pile. The other is a viable shirt, albeit one my daughter declared “something an old lady would wear.” I ignored the old lady part and went with the “would wear” possibility.

All of this to say that watching experts do something over and over again demystifies the process. It quickly became clear that sewing is really just geometry, carving shapes out of fabric in a way that allows seams to fall flat. Sleeves all need a certain give to allow movement; zippers add a rigidity that needs accommodation; the characteristics of the fabric make or break any design.

What does all of this have to do with adult learning?

First, what we know going into an experience determines what we get out of it. I watch Project Runway and am inspired to sew. My daughter watches Project Runway and decides sewing is too hard. The difference? I knew enough to see possibility. Prior knowledge serves two functions: it provides a foundation for new knowledge and shapes our confidence and curiosity. It can’t be said enough that teaching and learning begins with them, not us. How can we better draw on the prior knowledge of the people we teach? How can we strengthen prior knowledge going before a training?

Exhibit B: Success

Second, watching a show like Project Runway demonstrates that every fancy final product is constructed through a series of discrete steps, often the same steps repeated garment after garment. A complicated whole is achieved through simpler parts.  When you watch dress after dress being sewn, you see the design decisions that lead to a standard set of outcomes. Nothing is sacred; an evening gown can become a cocktail dress with the cut of a hem. While watching a video alone does not mean you will be able to do it too, it gives you a boost when combined with practice. Imagine if we created more opportunities to see experts at work. What if we could capture their decision-making in real time and give people time themselves to practice similar decision-making in real settings? And when it comes to content, imagine how powerful it would be if we cut away everything extra to be left with something simple and classy.

Lastly, watching Tim Gunn as a mentor is delightful. He anchors his critiques in a clear sense of the goal, often bringing designers back on track after they meander off course. His comments are crisp and honest, delivered with a sweet sense of love and protection. What any of us could achieve with a Tim Gunn by our side. The nonprofit sector would be vastly more effective if we invested in coaches to support the one-and-done learning that we too often provide.

I hear a new season of Bachelorette is starting up. I have a shirt she can borrow.

3 thoughts on “Project Runway: A Lesson in Adult Learning”

  1. Excellent insights about adult learning. Let me add another reason to LOVE Project Runway: Watch the incredible creativity that goes into the “found items” challenge. This episode (really the only one that I try to watch) excites me so much…creating something out of diverse, unrelated pieces…finding the relationships and creating a whole that works. Creativity and great design are the hallmarks of great clothing…and great training.

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  2. Upon your recommendation, I took a look at Project Runway through a learning lens and saw true poetry in some of Tim Gunn’s exchanges with aspiring designers. I also saw how different designers would ignore, accept, and be inspired by his feedback. Thank you for “listening to your viscera” and using an unexpected element to create elegant insight.

    Liked by 1 person

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