Gaining Knowledge Through Having a Hobby: Creating Motivated Learners
I’ve always maintained that the only way to learn something properly, is to get out there and do it. No one learned surfing by, pardon the pun, surfing the web. Sportspeople don’t learn new skills and advantages by reading instructions from a book; they train and make mistakes. If you want to learn cooking, no amount of watching cooking programmes will make you cook like Gordon Ramsay. If anything, you’ll probably just end up talking like him instead…
Hobbies are a fantastic way of learning, simply because people get out there and actually practise their chosen discipline and experience trial and error, whether it be flower arrangers, woodworkers, or people who tinker with old tape players. Chi-Chang Liu and John H. Falk in their paper “Serious Fun: Viewing Hobbyist Activities through a Learning Lens” set out to create a theoretical framework with which to describe how people who practise hobbies learn new skills and knowledge.
Firstly, they found that according to the OECD and the US Labour Dept, people generally spend around 4-6 hours per day engaging in leisure activities. Leisure can involve menial things such as sleep, watching TV, etc, but hobbies are included in this too. This represents a large chunk of our daily lives utilised as learning, or at least the potential for learning, and they wanted to investigate the ways in which hobbyists go about their learning. Their findings included four key aspects that make up the theoretical framework for describing how hobbyists gain new knowledge and master a skill.
1: Situated Learning. Hobbyists learn new skills within the context of the area they are learning about, rather than a sterile classroom style environment.
2: Social enterprise. Hobbies are rarely practised in a vacuum, with most people who practise them being part of a community or club where other hobbyists can exchange skills and knowledge between each other.
3: Mastery and expertise. Rather than having to learn abstract concepts in general (such as in a scientific discipline) hobbyists tend to learn and subsequently seek to master a particular area. They can do this because they are keen to gain knowledge about a particular narrow field, related to their hobby.
4: Motivation by interest. Hobbyists are intrinsically interested in their discipline. This motivates them to learn and gain knowledge, so that they can improve their skills.
Let’s apply these themes to a real-life example of how a hobby allowed me to gain knowledge I never could have hoped to gain from reading books: car repair.
Around two years ago, I purchased a very cheap, 2000 BMW 325 which had been neglected by many previous owners. My mechanical experience was to be honest, rather barren. Having never so much as changed a spark plug before, I was forced to learn to fix all the little issues the car had, through actually getting down and oily and gaining knowledge in the style of the hobbyist. By tinkering, making mistakes, reading BMW forum posts and pursuing mastering the finer details of the car, I was able to fix all the problems and have since ended up with a reliable car which is a pleasure to drive. And has never gone wrong since.
How does Liu and Falk’s framework apply in this case? Firstly, I was practising situated learning by actually figuring things out in the engine bay, where I could see the problems as I unearthed them, and go through the tedious but enjoyable process of trial and error. Of course, I had to read basic repair instructions to follow the correct procedure, but by learning in the garage with all the other problems apparent and easy to see, I was able to fix them more efficiently, compared to if I had attempted the repair in a sterile environment such as a mechanics class with some random engine.
Secondly, I utilised a hefty number of BMW forum posts to help me diagnose issues I was struggling with. Whilst this isn’t a typical example of social interaction, I feel it still counts in the context of the paper as I was using other people’s experiences with their hobby of fixing old BMWs to aid me in fixing mine. This is the classic apprentice/expert relationship present at every hobby group, and is another theme that Liu and Falk use to describe how learning through hobbies is very effective. As communities often feature a number of different experience levels amongst their members, a number of different expert/apprentice relationships can be achieved.
Thirdly, I always hunted for information related to my particular car, rather than generic car repair advice/information. BMWs can be notoriously tricky sometimes, with ‘typical’ car issues manifesting themselves very differently, making them hard to repair. This motivated me to learn as much as possible about the particular engine in my car, as opposed to just engines in general. Had I learned from a mechanic school, I would have had to learn about many different types of engines, subsequently diluting my knowledge. Because my car was my hobby I was able to master the tricky niggles and bugs, something I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
Finally, my interest. As some of you know I am a keen car person with a passion that drove me (sorry) to try my hardest and put in the hard hours fixing things in the most cramped of engine bays, or underneath lifting a 30kg gearbox into the car and onto the back of the engine. Without the motivation from interest, there is no way I would have done that without being paid! An intrinsic interest motivates us to put time and effort into the tricky situations that we would never get ourselves into otherwise.
I’ve long had an appreciation for anyone with a passion for their hobby, no matter what it is. If something gives you great enjoyment and satisfaction from the knowledge you gain and the skills you master, keep pursuing it and polish those skills, whether it be birdwatching, growing radishes, stargazing… anything! As we’ve learned from Liu and Falk, hobbies are very effective at making us motivated learners through our intrinsic interest in our chosen discipline. Liu and Falk describe the knowledge feedback loop, where an interest in something makes us seek more knowledge about it, leading to more interest and so on. We seek to master niche aspects of our hobbies and become experts, allowing us to gain higher knowledge that enables us to become more skilled than if we were learning in a ‘classroom’ style environment. But most of all, hobbies give us satisfaction and pleasure which then makes us motivated to do all the things mentioned earlier. It is the main driver that makes us passionate about our hobbies and makes us learn more as time goes by.