The first letter home to mom from the new college student was predictable. Mixed with reports about classes, roommates, social activities and lack of money, was "could you please send me the instructions for cooking that casserole we all like so much? You know, the one with the rice and sausage that is kinda spicy."

This new college freshman, living away from home for the first time for an extended period of time, had been taught to cook the casserole before. She had cooked it with her mom, who had taken her through the process in easy systematic steps. It may be that she really didn't learn until she really needed to know.Six or so years have passed since I was first personally introduced to word processing. When introduced way back when, I remember thinking that word processing was something like food processing. Since then I have become moderately skilled at using the computer and notice that it is a fixture in most businesses and many homes. Two years ago I taught my first class where more students handed in papers typed on a computer than handed in papers typed the old-fashioned way. This year in a first-quarter freshman composition course at Snow College, only two students didn't know how to use a word processor.

I asked students in this class how they learned to use computers to help them write. I expected that most had taken some course. What I discovered was that most had learned word processing on their own when they needed to know it. Even those who had taken some kind of course said that they really learned the skill when it had to be learned and used. One noted that the first time a teacher said that all papers had to be typed, she went home and discovered how to do this on her Dad's computer.

Six years ago when I started learning to process words with a computer, I began the same way I have learned to attack most problems - I read a book on the subject. I then went carefully through the manual that came with my computer and faithfully followed all the steps as the computer took me through a rather tedious tutorial. At that point I had invested quite a few hours learning but still didn't feel I could write using the computer.

I considered taking a class.

At this point a colleague made a rather obvious suggestion. She told me to just try to use the thing. I did, and have been using it ever since. I have found that when I need to know something about the word processing program to complete some project, I can look it up, use the new skill, and remember it. I learn it when I have to do it.

The idea that we learn by doing is so obvious outside the school that we don't even consider an alternative. People learn to garden by gardening, to play baseball by playing baseball, to evaluate insurance policies by buying insurance, to cook by cooking and to negotiate a car loan by purchasing a car. It may be that sometime along the way a school lesson was taught that made learning these skills easier and it may be that students were presented with these skills, but the skills were not learned until there was a reason for them to be used.

It may be that the best we can do in school is to teach some fundamental skills that include the skill of knowing where to look to solve a problem. Perhaps knowing how to attack a problem is as important as learning about skills before we need to use them.

There are skills most of us can remember teachers trying to teach us that we really didn't learn or don't remember. Perhaps it is because we don't use the skill. I never did know how to solve the math problem that tells me that Mary is two years older than John was four years ago and twice the age of Fred who will be three years younger than Mary in five more years and then asks "what is the name of Mary's dog." Perhaps some day when I need to do something with this information I will learn it. I'll probably learn the answer to this question when I get into data processing.