Origami and the art of learning new skills


A post by Jason Kottke about origami got me thinking about how we learn new skills and the role of instruction. By coincidence, I spent some time at the weekend trying to do some origami myself. The Saturday edition of The Guardian newspaper printed some patterned and coloured squares to cut out, along with instructions to create cranes, cicadas, penguins and sloths, among other things. I had a go in an idle moment, and did fine with some and got completely baffled by others. The sloth, for example, totally defeated me.

Even with step-by-step instructions, there are some folds that you just have to play or experiment with in order to understand them. It might be better if you had someone demonstrating the procedure live, but I still think that there are parts you have to understand structurally in order to be able to do them properly. Like many complex skills, the best an instructor can do is to draw your attention to the salient parts of the process so that you're not randomly trying things, and to steer you back on course when you veer off it.

Thinking along those lines, the photograph of the incredible origami silverfish created by Robert Lang, and the staggeringly complex crease patterns that go along with his designs are even more impressive. The crease patterns only show part of the story of course; you still need to know the pattern of manipulating the creases in order to create the 3D structure, and that seems unimaginably hard unless you've got Jedi-level spatial visualisation skills. As Robert Lang himself says:

The creases all work together when they are fully folded, but it is often the case that there are no intermediate states -- no subsets of the creases -- that can be folded together, which would form the individual steps. For such a model, the only way to assemble the model is to precrease all of the creases, then gently coerce them all to come together at once with a minimum of bodging.

[...] Small wonder, then, that to many people, the concept of an origami crease pattern as a form of origami instruction is more than a little reminiscent of a famous S. Harris cartoon in which a scientific derivation is described by the phrase "then a miracle occurs..."

I'm in awe of his ability to produce these amazing origami pieces, when I have trouble with a very abstract, 2D sloth and step-by-step instructions.

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