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Learning: implicit, explicit, and bendable…

October 7, 2009
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Two articles came to my attention this morning; one by the wonderful Don Watson concerning the communications breakdown during the Black Saturday bushfires “Language like this should be put to the torch” from the Sydney Morning Herald, and the other by Benedict Carey “How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect” from the New York Times about a recent research project to do with implicit learning.

Engaging with the Feldenkrais Method really asks you to hang out in the fuzzy border between the explicit and the implicit. Often I’ll give an explicit movement direction to a student, while looking for the implicit response required to make the requested movement. Or I’ll give a general movement direction, and the student explores through trial and error until the organisation and sequence necessary becomes explicit for them. Learning in the Feldenkrais realm moves constantly between the two. Although during the lesson awareness (and therefore explicit learning) is paramount, the method relies on this: that new patterns learned in the lesson become implicit in the student’s everyday actions outside the lesson. Which is why it’s so delightful to read in Carey’s article that scientists are catching up with some of the fundamental principles of the Feldenkrais Method.

Watson’s article, on the other hand, shines a piercing light on a tragic example of avoiding the explicit. Like many Victorians I have been deeply saddened by the Black Saturday fires and have followed reports of the Royal Commission with increasing sorrow. Watson’s thesis, that the CFA’s managerial jargon obfuscated and -albeit unintentionally- mislead people into believing they were safe when they were not, rings all too true.

I teach English as a second language to adults, and it’s common practice now to hive off ‘Business English’ as a separate course. This is partly because, as a live language, English is constantly changing and growing – not just in terms of vocabulary, but also in common grammar usage. It’s what makes the language exciting and, frankly, fun: I love to tell people I googled something. But not all changes in usage enrich English: plenty of recent changes impoverish words, as I am sure Mr Watson argues in his new book.

A salient example: the current tendency to verb nouns. I first became aware of this during my practitioner training, when we were advised solemnly to “take care how you language your lesson”. I was nonplussed: to me, language is a noun. Did it mean “Speak Spanish to Spanish speakers, English to English speakers, Korean to Korean speakers, etc” which would be an obvious but linguistically gymnastic instruction? After further discussion, it turned out that the explicit meaning was “Choose the words you use in your lesson carefully”. This is indeed important as, for example, there is a connotative difference between the words stretch and lengthen – one connotes effort and the other does not. Yet ‘language’, as used as a verb above, is denuded of reference to its diverse forms (French, Italian, Mandarin etc) or structure (passive, active, florid etc) and reduced simply, if obscurely, to ‘vocabulary’. Sadly, it would seem that even a profession profoundly concerned with the subtleties of communication is vulnerable to the Managerial-speak juggernaut.

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