The Ineffability Problem

Imagine if I were to hold up two very close colors of green next to each other, and roughly a foot away from your face.

These are the absolute closest wavelengths of green to be beside each other. Green 24, and green 25 let’s say. If the cards of green are next to each other and in front of your face, it might be easier to discuss the differences. One might have just a hint of yellowed tint, or one is simply lighter or darker than another.

But if I were to randomize them behind my back, and then hold only one up to your face, it has proven very difficult to explain which is which.

And good luck explain the greens, or colors in general, to the blind.

This is what Thomas Metzinger calls the “ineffability problem,” where our conscious experiences are difficult to recount in language or expression.

In a far enough complexity, this occurs with epistemology as well. Known as the “curse of knowledge” once a person has internalized a skill or concept, where the brain efficiently moves the information to our hippocampus, rather than explicitly work it out in our frontal lobes, it becomes very difficult to communicate those steps back to someone else. Picture Lebron James trying to teach dribbling skills. Some people elevate themselves in a skill, but also in doing so may sacrifice the skills in communicating in a way to make that palatable to the laymen.

In fact, one could say that a career like Richard Dawkins, an explainer of natural selection, exists for the sole purpose of telling us what the research holds. I doubt Dawkins himself does a great deal of the research. But there is a need for writers like Dawkins to put dense science into clear (and in his case) beautiful prose.

Richard Feynman may have done work in Quantum Electro Dynamics, and the math may have checked out, but explaining quantum theory is half the battle.

The reason I bring this up is to say that where science has split the difference in theoretical and applied fields, in general education, we seem to conflate the two.

“Show your work” in mathematics answers many problems, one of them being to build the idea that, at a certain point in math, the problems outpace our short term memory.

But often for teachers the explanation they give is that comprehension and competence are the same thing. When we’ve seen that it is not.

Lebron does not have to explain a lay up in words in order to do one excellently.

This conflation is ugly in standardized tests. When there are at least 18 rules for comma use in grammar, a student may get an answer correctly about comma placement, but have no idea why they got it correct. Does that mean that they “understand the material?”

Or how about this: a student guesses correctly and simply took a wild chance. A false positive.

Or perhaps a third option: that the student has muscle memory of comma use that their brain is unable to explain, yet seeing the problem allows them to choose the right answer. They may say they “guessed” but in truth there is something deeper going on.

We may balk at this level of thinking about tests and grammar and the brain, but many experiments on people with short term memory problems proves that there is a memory that exists beyond the conventional. In an experiment involving these brain injuries, where the candidates could not form new memories, they were still able to navigate their way through a maze in the afternoon much faster than in the morning. They told the researchers that they had never seen the maze before.

In education we seem to be obsessed with accountability, without thinking deeply just what it is exactly we want to hold students accountable for? Do we want people to read and write well? Or do we want people to comprehend what “good” prose “looks” like? Writing high level essays is glanced at for twenty seconds, while the revising and editing section is given an itemized 25 question multiple choice test.

What is so alarming as well is the fact that young people are holding onto brains that are very new, still forming, and as such are prone to further widening disparities in the ineffability problem. Remarkably, young adults tend to have incredible fluid intelligence, while the older cling to crystallized intelligence, and both of these play right into the hands of a generational gap when it comes to teaching. We keep wanting them to be like us, but Piaget knows better.

What to make of all this? For English, the more time spent reading and writing may have less data for us to scrutinize, but it may prove a better educational tool than grammar worksheets. If almost a century of research has anything to say, teaching traditional grammar is damaging to a student, as it takes away the time students could spend using the language rather than identifying it.

And we need to relax a bit. By recognizing our young one’s brains like athletes, we may decide to cut some slack on forcing them to prove their knowledge all the time, and simply to let them do it instead. Instead of finding their passions outside of school in dance, art, or theater, or a sport, we could return a passion to the classroom. My wife loved to do math until one teacher ruined calculus for all time.

How many times has that happened to the smart ones who never got the chance?

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