What a five-year-old, seashells and formal semantics taught me about learning

Learning 2

What seashells taught me about learning

As a 17-year-old planning to pursue languages, my A-level biology coursework seemed interesting, but irrelevant. It involved comparing the apertures of seashells from two beach locations to see if there was a difference between the two datasets. To compare the datasets, we learned to use a statistical test called a t-test. Pointless, when you’re planning a career in languages.

I got my A-level, left school, pursued languages and then became a teacher. A decade later, I returned to uni and started a Masters in Linguistics.

There I took a module in accent variation. One of my assessments required analysing a person’s speech and comparing their vowel sounds. To do this, I was required to perform… you’ve guessed it…a t-test.

All this has taught me…

Sometimes things which seem irrelevant or pointless may turn out to be just the opposite. Since we can’t see into the future, we should never discount something on the grounds that it appears irrelevant.

What a five-year-old taught me about learning

A couple of weekends ago I had the total joy of helping my two small nieces with a craft activity. Earlier in the day their mum and I had discussed just how many arty things they produce, and how it was impossible to keep everything. I was thinking about that as I watched them decorating their boxes. I felt a tiny bit sad wondering whether these boxes were destined for ‘the great art gallery in the sky’.

But then I thought about what was actually happening.

There was an abundance of glitter glue and my five-year-old niece was, unsurprisingly, keen on using it. But rather than abstractly blobbing it on like her little sister, she wanted to use it like a pen to trace her drawings. As she started, it was pretty blobby and things were not going well. At that point her mum stepped in and guided her through it, showing her how to move the pen and get the glitter flowing at a better rate, then leaving her to try.

I watched my five year-old-niece go from a novice to competent glitter-gluer. The slight sadness was replaced with delight as I realised that it didn’t matter what happened to the boxes, because even if they didn’t make it, through doing the activity my niece had learned a new skill.

All this has taught me…

Often we focus on objects and outcomes, yet sometimes what is of greatest value is not the outcome, but the learning that happens in the process of creating it.

What formal semantics taught me about learning

I have never come closer to failing a module than when I took a compulsory Masters module in formal semantics. The utter agony and frustration of just not getting it. It’s all about using logic to represent language, and I just could not get my head around it. It is a small miracle that I passed that module and I was very happy to put it behind me in the spring of 2013.

A few weeks ago, I began developing a spreadsheet in which to analyse my doctoral data. Looking at my data, I knew I needed to reduce values to 1s and 0s. To do this, I worked out what I needed to do, then discovered on Google that the formulae I needed were logic formulae. As I wrote the formulae for my spreadsheet, I realised that not only did they make sense, but things I had been trying to grasp for months during my semantics course were finally making sense!

All this has taught me…

When things seem incomprehensible, sometimes it takes seeing them in a different context or a different application for them to make sense. And sometimes a bit of time and distance helps too.

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