We understand things differently

Jo, one of the characters in the book in ‘Bad Choices’ (Viking, April ‘17)

You think your suffering is unique. And then you read Dostoevsky and Dickens and you realize that your experiences couldn’t be more commonplace. That was the perspective that beckoned me to Baldwin.

There is a corollary to that idea when it comes to learning. You think understanding is universal, and then you read. And you realize that it couldn’t be more unique.

I came across a passage many years ago, from someone reminiscing about a professor. “I particularly enjoyed his lectures,” the author begins. “He had a mind like a freight train. It took so long to pull out of the station that you’d think he was stupid. But he would gradually speed up, becoming unstoppable once up to speed.”*

Another passage comes from the mathematician Laurent Schwartz, talking about himself as a schoolboy. He begins, “In spite of my success, I was always deeply uncertain about my own intellectual capacity; I thought I was unintelligent.” That’s a strange thing for a Fields Medal winner to say. He continues, “I was and still am rather slow.”† And he goes on to talk about his memories from school and about his various anxieties.

Another passage is from Nikola Tesla’s autobiography. In describing how he designed his machines, he says, for instance, that he would picture in his mind a DC machine. Then he would imagine an alternator, and visualize the motors and generators. “The images I saw were to me perfectly real and tangible . . . The motors I built there were exactly as I had imagined them.”‡ And the machines behaved according to spec. We’ll take it as read that that was actually the case.

Each of those three individuals had a very different way of understanding. The first was slow and then gradually sped up. The second was slow throughout. The third was driven by seeing things in his imagination. Others are driven by seeing tangible results.

A question one might ask when reading passages like these is, if it’s the case that people have different ways of understanding things, shouldn’t we keep that difference in mind when testing understanding?

Several years ago, I read about an approach to learning that emphasizes play and interaction and dialog, and was intrigued by it. Not only because it mirrors how many of us picked up those things that we ultimately became passionate about — messing about, tinkering, hacking, as the trendy kids nowadays might say — but also because it strikes me as a flexible, encompassing way of testing understanding. There is minimal prescription in the process. Its simplicity appears to allow for greater expression of understanding. It even strikes me as a better approach in hiring.

With the wrong mindset, diversity of thought becomes a quality that’s not only impossible to recognize, but also difficult to appreciate.

You can preorder ‘Bad Choices’ by visiting bookofbadchoices.com. It’s great. You’ll love it :)

This piece is the final part in a series of five short pieces. It was originally published at bookofbadchoices.com/shorts/we-understand-things-differently

* A. K. Dewdney, “Deductive and Inductive Science: Reflections, Memories, & Open Problems”, Laurent Schwartz, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, Nikola Tesla, My Inventions.