Reprendre (Monday, 2010 December 6)

December 6, 2010

I have been thinking lately about doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. Motivation: imagine you are in class and you ask:

Teacher: OK, class. What color is the sky?

Student, raising hand and being called upon, says: Air!

Teacher: OK, good, the sky has air in it. But what color is it?

Different student, too excited to wait to be called upon: Monsieur! It’s air!

This experience repeats itself with a certain frequency. I was going to say everything in this country is like that to some extent, but I think actually it’s only my experiences at the Lycee. I saw one kid restart a machine, watch it boot up, get to the login screen, palpably not know what to do, and restart the machine again, six times in a row, looking increasingly agitated to the tune of "Why won’t this work???" to the extent that he wanted to tear out his hair (which is of course impossible because students at the Lycee are required to have shaved heads).

And it’s really not just the students, either. In the above interaction, the teacher is trying the same question in the hopes of getting a different answer too. This was brought home to me a Saturday or two ago where I spent about ten minutes running through the same "Why does it say 6? What if I change this number to 4? What will I have? .. But I see 2. Why does it say 2? What if I change this number to 10? What will I have?" cycle with a student before realizing that he was not going to break out of the loop himself so it was really up to me to try to get him to realize that the things he was saying were laughably inaccurate and that it was necessary to figure out what was really going on. And I’ve had experiences trying to debug machines or install OSes where I’ve fruitlessly retried the same procedure several times over, possibly with minor variants, out of desperation or complete ignorance. And it never works. The only thing that works is trying something different.

It feels so unfair when you ask a clear question like "What color is the sky?" It doesn’t feel like there’s a better way to ask it. It shouldn’t be something you have to negotiate. Is it a language barrier? Some twisted effect of the Cameroonian educational system or context? Is it important that they learn to answer questions based on what the question is asking instead of what they memorized? The whole thing is kind of a mess.

Today’s word, "reprendre", means something like "to do over".

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