Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Trying to be clear

I read that many Europeans have learned to count off things on their fingers by starting with the thumb.  That makes sense since it is the first digit from the side on either hand.  I always saw people around me count off items by starting from the index finger and moving along towards the little finger.

So what?  Who cares?  "Non importa", my Italian teacher would say.  I bring it up because I am interested in what is simple and what isn't.  What communicates easily and what causes confusion.  The warning about counting said that starting with the index finger sometimes confuses a person used to saying "one" while tapping or extending the thumb.  

I sometimes found that an overly simple question sparked an internal red flag in a student.  If I hold up my hand and ask,"What is this?", I would not be surprised if a student hesitates to answer.  He knows I know it is a hand and that he knows it is a hand.  Maybe it is a trick question.  Maybe the 'this' does not refer to the hand.   Maybe the gesture?  The neurological impulse sailing through my muscles that allowed me to lift my hand?  

Speaking or writing directions or specifications is not all that simple, especially with people of multiple generations, cultures, sensory capacities.  Each attempt at communication is a gamble.  Directions can be too detailed or not detailed enough.  Trying to get the best level of detail reminds me of the problem of "zoom".  It took humans a very long time to realize the many levels of reality that are too microscopic to see and the many levels that are too big to see.  Maps with too much detail are confusing but those with too little are not helpful. Similarly, if I try to explain how to cook a fried egg by describing in detail which door of the kitchen is the best way to the stove, I won't be helpful.  John Seely BrownLucy SuchmanRichard Saul Wurman and many others more recently involved work at trying to formulate strategies and maybe even rules or machines for clear communication of just the right complexity and focus to maximize learning rapidly and permanently. 

In today's multicultural, multigenerational world, one in which various personalities and human strengths, weaknesses and learning differences are more recognized and understood all the time, where we have less time to ponder and more distractions, getting information across smoothly and pleasantly is no easy task.

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