The Missing Connections

 The Problem

When I’m taught something in school, I often find myself asking two questions:

  1. Does it matter to me?
  2. Does it make sense to me?

Sadly, the answers are often “no” and “no”. I’m not motivated by whatever I was learning, and it’s not making sense, at least not to me.

What went wrong?

Some connections are missing. By connection, I mean the bridge between what you are trying to learn and what you already know. Sometimes, the absence of connections makes it a lot harder to learn something, let alone enjoy it.

For example, when you play a game for the first time, it usually teaches you the basics like shooting an enemy, and then puts you in an environment where you can try out what you just learned. It then continues with other basic controls until you are comfortable with everything. Only after that, the real game begins.

 The Excuse

Now, imagine putting a player out there in the real game before they even have a chance to get comfortable with the basic controls. And when his character dies miserably, the game concludes that the player is “stupid” or is “not a FPS person”.

That’s pretty much what happens at school. Here, the missing connection is the mastery of the basic controls. In the context of school, it could be a poor grasp of required background knowledge, the absence of the big picture, or the irrelevance to students’ daily lives.

It’s easy to blame the students for not working hard or not being smart, but it doesn’t hurt to reflect on the way things are being taught.

Being able to fill in this kind of missing connections is hard, especially when teachers already have textbooks and lesson plans in hand. But I don’t see asking for it as unreasonable. After all, putting things in someone’s brain is a very serious job, because everything that gets put in has an impact on how he thinks and acts thereafter. Those who teach really need to think about how well the new piece fits before pressing it in.

 The Solution

So what should we do?

I echo what Kalid Azad says in his awesome “A BetterExplained Guide To Calculus” about “moving from blurry to sharp”, “moving from appreciation to performance”, and “moving through history”.

He suggests that we should provide the missing connections that people will most likely relate to, and three things help a lot when explaining something:

  1. the big picture
  2. the beauty
  3. the visualization

1 and 2 shows why it matters, and 3 makes sense of it. With the help of these connections, the new pieces will much more likely snap into place.

But I’m sure there are more missing connections out there. As an effort to seek out more missing connections, I started a Tumblr blog called Gem In Gem Out that collects good explanations that actually present these connections. You can submit anything good that you come across by submitting on the Tumblr blog or emailing me.

 In Closing

Presenting knowledge at its most accurate and detailed form is not necessarily the best way to teach. Sometimes with the best intentions, the results are disappointing.

Students definitely need to see formulas, theorems, and rigorous proofs, but what they need more is something they can relate to - those missing connections.


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