We’ve all been in this situation: we have an idea in our mind, and we just can’t seem to get the person in front of us to understand it. There’s a sort of divide between you and the other person. On the one hand, you can clearly picture what you’re thinking about. Furthermore, what you’re saying makes perfect sense to you, but the other person can’t follow at all. This causes frustration on your part. On the other hand, the person you’re speaking to might be wondering whether they just aren’t good enough to understand (or, more cynically, they think you’ve given a horrible explanation).
When I get myself into this situation, it’s easy to try and keep on pushing forward, willing the person to understand what you’re talking about. Personally, I got into this situation the other day when I was teaching a young student mathematics. I was trying to explain the concept of subtraction (finding the difference), but I could feel I was getting no where. I think it was due to me using a bunch of words when I should have focused on the actual manipulation, but I ended up confusing the student. I could tell they just weren’t getting, despite it being extremely obvious to me. In my mind, I couldn’t believe how this student wasn’t grasping it. It seemed ridiculous.
However, the problem is that I failed to appreciate the situation they were in. While I have practiced doing subtraction thousands of times, this person has only had a hundred or so sessions of practice. Therefore, I should have kept that in mind while explaining subtraction to this student.
Additionally, I noticed that my default position when a student wasn’t understanding the concept was to explain more. I think this is because I wanted to give my student as much information as possible in order to understand the situation. But now I realize that this was probably the wrong approach, since it overloads the student with information. And when one feels overloaded with information, it does not matter how easy a question is. The person will mentally shut down from solving the problem. I know this happens because I’ve experienced it multiple times in my education. At one point, the mind has too much information to think about, and so concepts start slipping through the cracks of the mind.
Which brings me back to my student, struggling to understand what subtraction was. When this happened, I tried to take a step back and break the concept down even further. I tried to show that the intuitive feel of a difference (from subtraction) happens when we build towers out of blocks. When the towers are the same height, we say that there is no difference between them. However, if I take a block away from one tower or add a block to a different tower, there is now a difference between the blocks. That is the essence of subtraction.
The reason I tried to explain it like this was because I felt as if having a physical representation of a difference in front of the student would help them grasp the idea. And, it did work to a certain agree. The student was able to answer the problem we were working on correctly.
What I want to learn from this is that teaching and learning is a difficult process. To transfer information out of one person’s brain and into another is a tricky task, and so we have to be mindful of the different ways to go about teaching.
Personally, I find the best teaching occurs when the idea you have in your mind and the one the student in front of you receives is as equivalent as possible. When this happens, your job as a teacher is fulfilled.
However, it’s always a struggle to do. This is what keeps me coming back to the subject of teaching. When you’re able to share the experience of a student understanding a concept, it’s great. I love the feeling, and I hope that I’ll be able to get that feeling as frequent as possible. At the same time, I realize that this won’t be the norm. After all, teaching is about transferring new knowledge to students. Therefore, it is likely that there will be parts of various subjects that my students will not understand. At that point, I have to rely on what I’ve learnt in my experience about teaching.
First, an intuitive sense for a situation is crucial. Yes, explaining to a student what the answer is can be a short cut, but it does not set a student up to be a problem solver. We want students to have a hunch about what is going to happen, which means they’re actively engaged in the subject.
Second, it’s crucial that we let the student dictate the pace of learning. I’ve been on the other end of this situation, and it’s very difficult to follow and learn. If the teacher goes too fast, the class becomes a battle to just get down what the teacher is saying without absorbing anything. There’s nothing more frustrating than spending all your focus on writing and taking notes while the substance of the notes must be ignored. It makes for a miserable learning experience, and so should be avoided at all costs.
However, if we are being realistic, a teacher still has to get through a set amount of material. Therefore, a certain pace must be kept. But a good teacher will plan ahead in order to always add a bit of margin into each class, allowing for times where a concept takes a bit longer to understand.
We must always remember that teaching is about transferring information from one person (the teacher) to many other people (the students). The most efficient transfer will be where everything a teacher says is understood by the students, whereas the worse case scenario will probably have the students saying they do understand, but they do not. There is always a certain transfer difficulty when information flows from one person to another.
The key then, is to always try and shape the information in a manner that the students will understand. This means you have to consider what the students think like. I can guarantee that the way you think and the way they think are not identical. The reason is that you’ve had much more experience with this material and other material, meaning you’ve both practiced using this information, and know your whole way around it.
Imagine you and a friend are in your house one night, when the power suddenly cuts off, throwing both of you into darkness. You will probably begin to move around the house, trying to find what caused the power to turn off. Your friend will attempt to follow you, but will quickly run into items they never would have if the lights were on. You try to give them a few instructions about where things are, but they only seem to minimally help.
In this situation, you’re both in the dark. However, you’re only physically in the dark, while your friend is both physically and mentally in the dark. You may not be able to see, but you still have a mental map of your surroundings, something your friend does not have. This map enables you to move around the house without too much friction, while your friend has a lot of difficult.
Similarly, this is the process which occurs as you teach. In the beginning, you know a lot about a subject and your students know little. Then, as the course goes on, the gap between what you know and what the students know lessens, if only a bit. What this highlights is that it’s not easy to transfer knowledge at the beginning, because the students don’t have the information you have. As such, explanations need to be crafted in ways that they will understand, without any help of material further along in the course. This can be tricky, because sometimes the information further along in the course complements what is said at the beginning. However, it is better to wait until the appropriate time to give the information, because the students will get confused.
The best teachers introduce their subject based on what students already know, and slowly build up the course from their. By doing this, every step is deliberate, and the students are not searching blindly in the dark for a light switch to illuminate the course.
The Unwatched Laboratory
At first, no one gets visitors. We all work in obscurity, steadily running experiments and collecting data, trying to figure out what we should do. At this stage, we are free to run any experiment. When it’s only us and our backyard tools, we can try whatever we like.
However, there comes a point in which our work breaches the bubble separating the known and the unknown, thrusting us into the spotlight. Just like that, our secret laboratory is known. Now, there’s always a guest or two there, eyeing what we are doing. In general, they are admirers, happy to see what you come up with next.
But for us in the laboratory, it feels slightly different. While we know the visitors are their because they like our work, we feel a certain amount of pressure to perform well. If those visitors took their time to come over and see what we we’re doing, we don’t want to disappoint them with boring work. Therefore, we spend a bunch of extra time thinking about what would be the perfect experiment to do, instead of simply doing what we thought was interesting – what got us to this point in the first place.
As a result, our work begins to suffer. Dealing with the added pressure is no fun, and it even snuffs out the flame of passion we had for our craft. With the flame blown out, we pack up and leave our laboratory, unwilling to return.
The above situation illustrates what happens when we are recognized for the work we do. It’s nice, for sure, but there’s also an added responsibility. We don’t want to disappoint those who love our work, so we start trying to craft our work for them, instead of just doing what moves us first. Inevitably, the work doesn’t have quite the same resonance that it had when it came purely from our desires, so the audience goes away. On the other end, the added pressure reduces our own joy for the craft, which can cause us to leave as well.
It’s important to remember why you began your journey in the first place. That initial contact with the craft created a spark within you. This happens with everyone, and is why we work long-term towards our goals. Remember that initial interaction with the craft, and remember that you got known by following what you loved to do.
Whether or not something becomes successful, if you don’t enjoy what you do, your longevity in a craft will be limited. Therefore, it’s important to work in your personal laboratory as if no one else is watching. Be guided by what you enjoy, and you’ll stay in your craft for life.
Those Who Are Left
When everyone else has moved on to something new, who’s still left? Are you one of those people, still working on that same craft, honing your skills? Or did you move on with the rest of them, eager to try the new and next best thing?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we enjoy chasing the next great thing more. It’s exhilarating, and fun. Trying out the latest software, or the newest tool, or a new activity brings with it a sense of novelty that is enticing to all of us.
However, deep down we know that this isn’t enough. While fun in the moment, doing this doesn’t advance us in our big goals, nor does it help us feel satisfied in the long term. Instead, we end up feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied with our progress. One of the worst feelings in the world is looking at the clock after what felt like only an hour or so of chasing the shiny items to see that the whole day has gone by. Amplified over many days and weeks, the feeling is only worse.
This brings us back to the original question. Where are you when everyone else moves to the next thing? You know the majority will flock to the new thing, but you have a choice. Either you join them, or you continue in your small corner, working on the things that drive you. Yes, this work is hard, and no, it’s not as “fun” as moving to the next thing. But, over the long term, you will get more satisfaction from continuing what you’re doing.
If you want to be the best at what you love, you have to keep on doing it. This stupidly simple but logical advice is easy to execute until you encounter the influence of others. Putting in the work is easy when that is all you have to do, but when you’re continuously blasted with new ideas and concepts from people on social networks, it can be difficult to block out the sirens’ call and focus on the work at hand.
If you can do this though, then you are setting yourself up to be successful. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday. When everyone leaves, you can choose to still be there, quietly working and building up your skill. While everyone else is switching between new things, you’re staying consistent with your work, and it will pay off.
Looking at mass media, it’s extremely easy to make the mistake that the world is concrete and definite, that there are absolute causes to issues. Furthermore, there’s the even more prevalent idea that if there are absolute causes to a phenomena, we are certain of knowing them.
The problem with absolutes is that they don’t include any wiggle room. Speaking in terms of statistics, if there’s only one state that represents your absolute, there are infinitely many other states that could be your answer. Therefore, the chance that you are correct is infinitesimal. Obviously, this depends on the total number of possible states for a situation, but you can imagine that there’s always a good chance that you aren’t perfectly correct.
Let’s face it: our universe is amazingly complex.
Declaring absolutes is almost never worth it. It’s a way to be wrong about ideas that you wouldn’t be wrong about if you had kept an open mind. Absolutes force us to be sure of things, but the reality is that we are rarely certain of events.
Unfortunately, there is another factor at play. When we propose absolutes, the fact that there is no wiggle room makes us look certain of ourselves. Done well, this can lead others to have a higher opinion of us, simply because we are steadfast in our beliefs. The incredible thing is that this can happen even if we are making an error. Just from the certainty in our beliefs, we can convince others that we should listened to.
As you can imagine, this can be downright dangerous with the wrong person. If he or she does not care about the facts more than about people following them, deliberate warping of the facts can be done in order to weave doubt and uncertainty in the minds of those who thought otherwise. One need only look at one of the most troubling problems for humans in the twenty-first century: global climate change. Despite the near-unanimous agreement that global climate change is happening, there are still those who doubt the claims of scientists. However, due to their prominent positions in society, they are capable of reaching a greater number of people than the traditional scientist can. This is disconcerting, because these people can spread misinformation, a catalyst for discouraging science from being a driving factor in these kinds of decisions (when they should be).
If we’re honest, we can acknowledge that absolutes sound better. They convey confidence in an idea. Plus, communicating in absolutes is simpler. Instead of having to qualify each statement with the relevant background context, people can jump right to the heart of a message. This makes language more efficient, which should be the goal of any communicator.
The caveat, though, is that this only works up to a certain point. This system will work when two people are talking and are already versed in the relevant background details. As a result, those don’t need to be reiterated. Imagine two scientists in the same field discussing the latest research. Most of the background information about the science itself will be understood by both parties, eliminating the need to carefully explain everything. There’s less explaining to do because the concepts are already understood.
On the other hand, if you look at a platform where someone is popular, this is much more difficult. After all, it’s easier to know if the person in front of you understands the background context you don’t have to refer to anymore than a massive following one may have with the public (where people cease to be people and become numbers). At this scale, it’s basically impossible to be certain that everyone understands the background context you carry with you, so you are faced with two choices: either you simplify everything in order to be more accessible (creating absolutes) or you can keep everything just as complex, but make an effort to show people the reasoning behind an idea.
Too often, I fear, we see the former. In an effort to communicate a message, we strip it down until it becomes so bare that the wonderful science has been lost.
Science is complicated. This is because, as I said earlier, the universe is complex. Conversely, so much of our media is driven by simplified messages. Dramatic headlines dominate the world, and the message within is often simplified. As a result, the message tends to work in absolutes.
We love knowing things. It’s more fun to see “Scientists detect aliens!” than “Scientists have found a strange disturbance at a nearby star”. Dramatic headlines feed right into our tendency to want to know more.
However, we must be smart, and realize that our universe is much more complex, layered, and nuanced than many people give it credit for. As such, we need to be mindful of how our words affect the perceptions of those around us. When we communicate in absolutes, we are saying that we now for certain what is happening. We need to start being more humble and acknowledge that this is not usually the case.
A good rule of thumb is this: if someone says something with any notion of absolutes, there’s a fair chance that they are incorrect. Therefore, we need to call them out on it (without being mean about it). Engage them in a dialogue about the subject, and bring them evidence that proves otherwise to their claims.
The worst thing we can do is try to ignore them, thinking that everyone else is smart enough to know better as well. For a lot of science, this is just not true. There are so many different concepts and ideas in science that it’s impossible to understand it all. The time where a scientist new all of the world’s knowledge in every scientific subject has long passed. Now, it’s great to be just an expert in a specific niche of a field.
Therefore, we have a responsibility to encourage accurate information to spread. By using absolutes, we tend to oversimplify, even when it’s not needed. Opposing those who did this is one small step towards creating a society that is more scientifically literate and has a default reaction of asking questions.
Absolutes are rarely real. Most of the time, they are only simplifications (and can be dead wrong). As such, spot them and take responsibility to spread accurate information. It’s the best way to combat absolutes.