Tuesday, 13 September 2011

More points to ponder in Inuit Education

In Nunavut, the urge to simplify text books and use plain language in the classroom is almost unavoidable. It's not just in the classrooms though, rendering technical concepts into plain-language text is often used in research proposals especially but also in glossaries of terms.

The problem that I've perceived in such exercises is that often the text and fundamental concepts in specialized fields tend to be glossed over without much thought to the logic that ties these concepts together into a coherent whole that is the discourse and field of study. Doing this, instead of making the concepts clearer, oftern make them more confusing and convoluted. Add to this, the text when translated will only become even more confusing.

In a classroom setting, the need to obey the internal logic of a particular field of study is key to comprehension so when plain-language text is not done masterfully the students easily get lost and resort to rote memorization as a strategy for studying. This is not education per se but rather a mindless repetitive exercise which discourages students from fully participating in the learning experience. Going by the drop-out rates in Nunavut schools, though not attributable solely to forced rote learning strategies, I'd say that poorly-done plain-language approach is one of the key determinants of poor academic performance.

In my translation work and in teaching I try and go by the dictum that Einstein supposedly said about simplifying: that we should simplify but no more than necessary. What I mean is that I try and let the internal logic dictate how I translate and/or present the text to the audience so as to make the concepts flow in a coherent, productive direction.

As a lover of mathematical ideas and its history, I am fully aware that even the syncopated phase of mathematics (using everyday language to present the ideas) was replete with profound problems of elegance and the sometimes succinct concepts were rendered so dense and convoluted as to make a greater majority of ordinary people hate maths with a passion. The modern symbolic logic presentation (the use of equations and axioms), though a bit intimidating still, is light years ahead of what came before. Logical structures are not language-specific so that makes mathematical ideas not only international but also atemporal (meaning that Euclid's insights are still beautiful even after more than two millenia).

As an instructor I feel that it's my duty to make the learning process as painless as possible, to try and present what I consider beautiful, elegant and coherent, and therefore productive to contemplate. At the beginning I tell my students that things aren't as intimidating and complicated as one assumes; that we are studying structures (ie, Inuit language) that they are intimately familiar with; that I'm just pointing out what they already know but have no developed language as yet and that I'm there to help them develop their conscious awareness.

One thing that I've had to try and overcome as an instructor is the prejudicial nature of plain-language, of how it tends to set bad habits in thinking and talking about ideas. Though this may be desirable in fields that require and demand orthodoxical and dogmatic thought, rote learning has in it many deadends and is ultimately detrimental to producing original insights and feelings of being a contributing member in a discourse so important to continue and building on learning.

The focus on internal logic systems points to many interesting ideas and unintended outcomes where original aha! moments are to be gotten. This is how I learn (largely on my own) and why I do not lack self-confidence in taking on intellectual challenges.


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