Finding your way in your world

by reestheskin on 19/08/2020

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I read Educated by Tara Westover earlier this year (it was published in 2018 and was a best seller). It is both frightening and inspiring. And important. Her story is remarkable, and it says more about real education than all the government-subjugated institutions like schools and universities can cobble together in their mission statements. WikiP provides some background on her.

Westover was the youngest of seven children born in Clifton, Idaho (population 259) to Mormon survivalist parents. She has five older brothers and an older sister. Her parents were suspicious of doctors, hospitals, public schools, and the federal government. Westover was born at home, delivered by a midwife, and was never taken to a doctor or nurse. She was not registered for a birth certificate until she was nine years old. Their father resisted getting formal medical treatment for any of the family. Even when seriously injured, the children were treated only by their mother, who had studied herbalism and other methods of alternative healing.

All the siblings were loosely homeschooled by their mother. Westover has said an older brother taught her to read, and she studied the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to which her family belonged. But she never attended a lecture, wrote an essay, or took an exam. There were few textbooks in their house.

As a teenager, Westover began to want to enter the larger world and attend college.

The last sentence above has it, as The Speaker of the House of Commons might say.

She gained entry to Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah, without a high school diploma and her career there was deeply influenced by a few individuals who saw something in her. She was awarded a Gates scholarship to the University of Cambridge to undertake a Masters and was tutored there by Professor Jonathan Steinberg. Some of their exchanges attest to the qualities of both individuals, and not a little about a genuine education.

‘I am Professor Steinberg,’ he said. ‘What would you like to read?’

‘For two months I had weekly meetings with Professor Steinberg. I was never assigned readings. We read only what I asked to read, whether it was a book or a page. None of my professors at BYU had examined my writing the way Professor Steinberg did. No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence, a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction.’

‘After I’ve been meeting with Professor Steinberg for a month, he suggested I write an essay comparing Edmund Burke with Publius, the persona under which James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay had written the Federalist papers.’

‘I finished the essay and sent it to Professor Steinberg. Two days later, when I arrived for our meeting, he was subdued. He peered at me from across the room. I waited for him to say the essay was a disaster, the product of an ignorant mind, that it had overreached, drawn to many conclusions from too little material.’

“I have been teaching in Cambridge for 30 years,” he said. “And this is one of the best essays I’ve read.” I was prepared for insults but not for this.

At my next supervision, Professor Steinberg said that when I apply for graduate school, he would make sure I was accepted to whatever institution I chose. “Have you visited Harvard?” he said. “Or perhaps you prefer Cambridge?”…

“I can’t go,” I said. “I can’t pay the fees.” “Let me worry about the fees,” Professor Steinbeck said.

You can read her book and feel what is says about the value of education on many levels, but I want to pick out a passage that echoed something else I was reading at the same time. Tara Westover writes of her time as a child teaching herself at home despite the best attempts of most of her family.

In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at the borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand [emphasis added].

At the same time as I was reading Educated  I was looking at English Grammar: A Student’s Introduction by Huddleston & Pullum (the latter of the University of Edinburgh). This is a textbook, and early on the authors set out to state a problem that crops up in many areas of learning but which I have not seen described so succinctly and bluntly.

We may give that explanation just before we first used the term, or immediately following it, or you may need to set the term aside for a few paragraphs until we can get to a full explanation of it. This happens fairly often, because the vocabulary of grammar can’t all be explained at once, and the meanings of grammatical terms are very tightly connected to each other; sometimes neither member of a pair of terms can be properly understood unless you also understand the other, which makes it impossible to define every term before it first appears, no matter what order is chosen [emphasis added].

Now what is common between the quotes from Westover and Huddleston & Pullum is obvious. They both speak of the pleasure and difficulties of learning about things you do not (yet) understand. Learning is not just about adding brick upon brick to your scholarly wall.

If you have ever taught or been taught medicine you will recognise that much of what we teach is the recognition of clusters of symptoms and signs so that you can perform a categorisation task. It is of little use saying we only want you to learn about x, y and z, when patients present with all the other letters, and where you can only define ‘z’ as being not a,b,c,d…y 1. And what I like about Huddleston & Pullum is not that they just recognise the problem but that they are upfront about it. And as Westover says, it is a struggle: learning is hard.

Back to the maps

I have written before about using maps as a metaphor for learning in medicine. I am now going to say a little more, and stretch my metaphor like a bad facelift, from Westover to Huddleston & Pullum, and back to Borges.

If you visit a city new to you (think Edinburgh), the easiest way to find your way round it to buy a simple schematic ‘ribbon’ map such as a PopOut map. The map will approximate to reality in terms of direction and distances (unlike say the London Tube maps) and, if you can triangulate to what you can see with your eyes (stars, sun, Arthur’s Seat, or the sea), you can use these markers to map your guide (pun noticed) onto reality. The beginner’s map works because it misses out most of the real world information, instead favouring immediate utility and accessibility over fluency. It is a type of learning and procedure that holds your hand until you find your feet, knowing that most who purchase the map will never find their feet. A heuristic pair of stabilisers2.

Natives — experts that is — do not see their city this way. Instead, over time, they have literally built an internal 3D representation of the city that allows them to simulate and see any path within their own mind. Their knowledge may still be imperfect, there will always be parts less familiar or unknown to them, but if they need to consult a map they will add the new information to their own representation. They may or may not have purchased a PopOut map.

Moving from the beginner’s tool to the internal representation that experts use is not easy. The latter is fluent and apparently effortless; the beginner’s knowledge is anything but, especially in an educational system in which students are made to learn the simple schematic maps for cities that they have never visited (or worse still, cities they never ever will visit). The transition from simple to fluent is hard, and disorientating. People confuse the two. The simple schematic is not the real thing but, initially at least, it saves you from the immersion is a world that may overwhelm. But if you want mastery and fluency you have to drop it, and move around in a world where you travel alone.

Much of medical education seems to consist of asking students to learn schematics maps for cities that they have not visited, and may never visit. The maps may serve a tourist well, but not those who make their home in a city. What we should aim for is very different: we are training students to make their professional home in a particular city, not to to be perpetual nomads. In fact, in some kind learning environments3, the schematic maps are not even necessary. We should think much less about cramming maps and students as ‘mini and pluripotent doctors’ and more about making our students aware of, and sympathetic to, the physical surroundings of their new homes when they graduate. Making our cities kind places to learn in would also be a start.

The image at the top of the page is by Abraham Cresques, and comes from the Gallica Digital Library and is available under the digital ID btv1b55002481n, Public Domain. Link.

  1. And yes, I despair at the recent ragbag of terms the GMC think medical students should know about. In truth, the GMC know little about learning or education, nor should we expect them to. Maintaining a register of competent professionals is a different sort of procedural task.
  2. Which leads on to the question of the utility or lack of utility of learning to ride a bicycle this way.
  3. I am using ‘kind’ in the sense of ‘kind’ versus ‘wicked’ learning environments. See Hogarth et al. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2015, Vol. 24(5) 379–385