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Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘teaching’

Look into my eyes

A brief digression into heterochromia

Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.

One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.

When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.

Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.

There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.

As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.

* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.

Lecturing

In which we discover a hidden talent

I was still thinking idly about teaching H how to drive, the other day, when Colleague K came down to Room 3B (The IT Office) and said: “Do you know algebra? Wee Dave said you would.”

“Why?”

“Well, it’s just that my daughter’s got her GCSEs coming up, and she’s stuck on algebra, and I don’t know how to do it so I can’t help her.”

So, I took half an hour out to scribble down some basics about solving linear and simple quadratic equations, the sort of thing I assume everyone knows anyway. Ten pages later I had some rough notes on algebra done, making it as simple as I could, trying to explain why it all works instead of just giving the textbook answer. And she seemed to like it.

“Wow, this is really good! Even I can understand it! Did you really just do all this off the top of your head?”

“Erm, yes, it’s only what I remember from when I was at school myself.”

“You should go into teaching or something!”

Which I’m not going to do. You have to work with children, annoying children who don’t want to work with you and don’t want to listen to what you have to tell them. But it set me thinking: why don’t I put notes on that sort of thing up on here? How to solve GCSE maths problems, or how to drive a car, or program a computer; that sort of thing. I could call it The Symbolic Forest Lectures, or something like that. And they’d have all the obvious stuff that noone ever tells you, because, to people who know it already it’s as obvious as breathing, too obvious to be worth teaching.

The only problem, of course, is finding the energy to actually do it.

Skill

In which we think we know how to drive

I seem to be becoming a worse driver.

This isn’t by my own judgement, but by the judgement of other people. Specifically, more and more people seem to have started beeping me for doing what they think is The Wrong Thing. I’m not sure what the problems are. I always signal, I travel at a reasonable speed,* I try to drive assertively and take up the appropriate space on the road. There’s nothing wrong with the car, so far as I can tell. So why have people decided to start beeping me all of a sudden?**

H, incidentally, has suggested I should teach her how to drive. And I realised, thinking about it, that I have no idea at all any more how to drive, or rather, how to explain how to drive. The manuals I assume say something like: “press gently with your right foot and at the same time lift your left foot up until you start to feel the clutch engage, then increase power whilst raising your left foot smoothly and releasing the handbrake”. If you drive, though, you don’t consciously do all that; you just wiggle your feet a bit and you’re away. I have no idea how I would go about explaining all the various simultaneous processes to someone, in a car without dual controls.

* usually at the speed limit. Honest, officer. Ahem.

** or wave their fist and shout “Wanker!” like the cyclist the other day. OK, I pulled out in front of him. It was thick fog, he was wearing dull clothing, and didn’t have any lights on his bike, so when I started moving I had no idea at all he was there. Tosser.