Learning is taking something away

Theorists like to use pictures to describe how learning works. “Not filling a bucket but lighting a flame.” Constructivists are gathering wins in the neuroscience, with their picture of learning as¬†building connections between nodes of ideas.

Adding and connecting ideas? That sounds a lot like the learning I’ve mostly done! You too? Pretty cool stuff.

I don’t know what she’s learning, but she seems very pleased about it. (Creative Commons – From Here)

Today, though, I want to talk about a different picture of learning: Taking something away. The image in my mind is that of the gardener, trimming the dessicated away from the healthy. While it necessarily follows the adding and connecting processes, cutting away nodes is arguably more valuable. To me, the ability to effectively prune mistaken or non-useful concepts sets highly capable critical minds apart from those minds less mature.

What am I talking about? Trimming trees? No! It’s about cutting out mistaken beliefs, misshapen concepts, and false ideas.

Although, if you had mistaken notions about how to trim trees, and then you pruned those ideas from your mind… (CC again, from Here, which is a strangely nice site for an Oregon municipality.) Do NOT cut along C-X.

When I learn, I begin with a set of assumptions. In some few situations, every bit of material is brand new to me; most of the time, I have some background knowledge. If I hear things that fit well with the background knowledge that I had, it is hard to tell what was there before and what was newly added (i.e. learned) from my participation!

However, if I had an idea that new evidence clearly contradicts, and I actually change my mind and how I see the world, THEN I know that I have surely learned. When my old idea is debunked and I see more clearly, I have more power to understand the world around me and predict what will happen.

Where do you find this sort of learning? Yes, you can watch Mythbusters or read popular science myths debunked or what have you. Those give you the instant thrill of changing your mind, if you had actually believed mistakenly and buy into the evidence presented. (Mythbusters is entertaining, sure, but hardly good science.)

In fact, you can learn this way all the time – with the right mindset. Developing a discerning eye means looking critically at your own beliefs. If you could state in sentences what you believe before going into a lecture or reading a chapter, and then explain what changed afterwards, then you are aware of what you learned. I have been trying to practice this, and have found myself frustrated by some classes that do not take anything away, particularly in the social sciences.

Teachers: if you do not find out what your students already know, you might not be adding any new knowledge or taking any misconceptions away.

I find that my mind is sharper when I know what I know and what I don’t, and I learn faster when I am focused on finding and correcting my misconceptions. I hope you can find some of your own false beliefs and learn too!

Confessions of a former grammar prescriptivist

[Edited: Links added]

Disclaimer: posted from the road, coming back from New Brunswick. Tomorrow or Tuesday I will come back to this post and the previous one to add links. Stay tuned!

I love words. As a lil tyke, I tore through series of all kinds, hardy boys and treehouse and animorphs and Lotr and Harry Potter and all the rest. Words were (and still are) the atoms of the worlds I escaped to.

I started learning the rules of grammar, both in school and from my parents and grandparents. Grandpa would make a loud ‘bzzzt’ if any of us grandkids used ‘like’ as a filler word, and Ms. Kopp had us diagram compound complex sentences. As a middle schooler, I took these rules for granted. While I liked to argue with teachers, having real, solid rules let me, with my advanced knowledge of said rules, hold a kind of power or superiority over classmates and siblings.

I looooooved to correct people’s grammar. I got in trouble at some point for passing a note in class, informing a classmate that ‘irregardless’ was not grammatical, at the expense of a teacher.

But I was wrong. Doubly wrong in that particular case, as ‘irregardless’ is a properly grammatical synonym for ‘regardless’. But I was wrong in a deeper sense, about what I was doing. It may not have been my fault; I had learned to correct grammar from a young age, and idolized, for instance, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. There remains a part of me that grows frustrated with “improper” punctuation or usage.

But I have learned the error of my ways. Grammar, spelling, usage, all of these language elements: we made them. And we can break them.

See, the top-pro grammar folks study linguistics. How people come to understand each other and the complex meanings we can evoke with sound or sign or text. They take it as an axiom that language is not some unmoving monolith; the rules of grammar and punctuation were not inscribed on some tablets outside the universe and handed down to us.

We made them so that we can communicate, and if we can do that effectively, all the rules in the world don’t mean diddly.

Now, if you are a naturally skeptical mind, you might challenge me and say: but we need consistent rules if we are going to understand each other!! We need teachers to teach the grammar that my teacher taught me and that my pappy’s pappy taught him, straight from his King James!

Is our quest really for understanding? Or is it to keep in place the power structures that privilege those who descend from privilege?

See, if grammar is something that you can get ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ then those who learn from their parents ‘how to talk right,’ (or even ‘how to speak correctly’) will have the advantage over those who only ever used words to get their point across. Just another way for discrimination to work.

Natural language has rules. Those rules are the object of study of scientists, but should not be the aim of instructors. If you had certain students who grew up in a null-g background, you would not teach them to obey the rules of gravity or punish them on tests if they could not stay down.

Teaching English has a place, for sure. I know well the difficulty of communicating, and how much difference it makes to practice and keep on practicing, to see the powerful examples of language superusers, the Kings and Dickensons and Foster Wallaces.

But we gotta cease with the prescriptivism, guys. We gotta recognize the rules for what they are; outdated, mistaught, misunderstood relics from an era when we thought we could know everything, and that people who didn’t know what we did we less than we were, less than good, less than human. It’s hurting real people!