Archive for the ‘Reconcilable Differences’ Category

One of the things that started me thinking along the lines of “Reconcilable Differences” was a pretty firm case of “Context Matters” with a sprinkling of “Language is Hard”. I was working on Triangle Pose (Trikanasana) in yoga and the teacher kept telling me to isolate my upper body. Well in the competition dancing that I did as a youngster, the phrase “upper body isolation” was almost always used to refer to making your ribs go in the opposite direction from your hips. This is of course different in different kinds of dances, but for the kind of dancing that I did, it was a core enough concept that this kind of upper body isolation was part of my routine warm-up.

So when I heard a very similar phrase in yoga I immediately started moving my chest away from my upward hip, which body-feel-wise was amazingly close to the Latin dancing upper body isolation that I’ve done a million times. And of course, that was the exact opposite of what the teacher intended. In order to achieve Trikanasana, the chest has to be aligned with the upward hip and by moving it away I was making the problem worse. After several repetitions and a physical correction from a very patient teacher, I figured out my mistake. And since I have spent a lot of time doing “upper body isolations” I was able to make a good deal of progress quickly once I understood the issue, although this is still really hard. And dealing with nuances of language that have been heavily skewed by years of dance while trying to hold yoga poses is still really hard too, but it is really cool when something filters through my excessively think skull.

And while I’m thinking about dance and “Context Matters,” I have to relay my very favorite example. It is in the different ways that one “Partners” in ballroom dancing and Kung Fu. In Ballroom, the lead (which is the role I danced nearly exclusively) does everything possible to project to his partner where he is going. This is very very important to avoid foot trampling and other unfortunate incidents. But when sparring, you want to do everything possible to prevent your partner from knowing what you are about to do. This is very very important to avoid injury and humiliation even in a ‘friendly’ sparring situation. So I guess it’s a measure of my insanity that I actually went back and forth between doing these two kinds of partnering for years. Perhaps I should have switch to following in dance?

So while drawing on past (or even present) experience that seems relevant to what I’m currently working on is useful, understanding where they are different is equally important.  And of course language always matters!

Note: If you just stumbled upon this post, it’s part of a loose series. There is no need to read the whole thing, but you might want to scan this post for context.

One of the things that I value most about teachers of physical skills is where they are able to translate their knowledge to the context of my body. I’m a middle aged man who did nothing at all resembling physical activity from for my teens and early twenties, I’ll never have the same kind of physique as even a middle aged man who kept in shape his entire life.

So what are some of the differences in body type that have affected my practice of Kung Fu, Yoga, Dance, etc.?

Age, sex, muscle mass, stretchiness (there’s got to be a better word for this one), proportion of length of arm to length of leg, difference in core strength, proportion of torso to limbs, lots of other internal proportions, nimbleness of ankles, proportion of my height to my partner’s in partner dancing, proportion of my everything to my partner’s when sparring. Okay, I’m getting the bit off more than I can chew sensation again. But let’s see if I can take a couple of these to illustrate and I may have to come back to this list later.

The incident that spurred this line of thought was in yoga class. The (female) teacher was taking the class through a pose that was fairly new to the series that the school is putting together – the finger stand pose – (if anyone can tell me what the sanskrit name for that pose, I’d appreciate it). The way this teacher had been teaching the pose previously was to advise people to work their hips up and back between their hands until they could kind of fall into their hands an lift their legs. The last time she taught it though, she gave an alternative of thrusting your hips back and using the momentum to pull your legs up. When I asked her about it after class, she said that she added the alternative because a male student noted that he was incapable of doing the particular hip contortion that was necessary to manage the first variation.

But I do worry that male/female differences in yoga practice in particular can be overlearned. My favorite counter-example is Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow pose) – my sister used to do this all the time when we were growing up. I tried it a couple of times and failed (when I was 5 or 6) and assumed that it was something that was just easier for girls so just gave up. But that particular pose was introduced recently in a class and not only could I do it, but it feels really good. Beware of overlearning.

Another body type of difference that has been top of mind recently is the proportion of heights when partner dancing. Mrs. Reboot and I have been taking various forms of beginning swing lessons recently (East Coast, West Coast, Lindy) where holds are relatively loose and substantial height difference can pretty easily accommodated. We’re taking group classes where you might end up dancing with twenty partners of radically different heights during the course of the class. It is amazing to see the number of leads who lift their hands the same amount (or at least try to)when turning a sub five foot tall follow as a six foot tall follow. And then the worst variation of that is when they blame the follows on the extreme end of the height spectrum for not doing something right (I’m not quite sure what the “something right” is in their heads). But one of the great things about taking a group class like that is being able to quickly go through the various adjustments one can make to accommodate partners of different heights.

An alternative for a specific activity might be to find a coach who is as close to my type as possible. That’s never worked very well for me. Possibly in part because that tends to poke at my competitive instincts, but also the matrix of differences is so big that I’m not sure it’s really feasible to find that kind of match in all dimensions. So that brings me back to valuing coaches who can do the translation from their type to mine. And where partners/fellow students are involved both observing and learning from what they can do differently based on their physical differences.

I am going to start my first content post of the “Reconcilable Differences” series that is only marginally fits and adds a whole new category to my original taxonomy. But it so top of mind right now that I can’t resist.

Yesterday I was working with a student one on one. I was trying to get him to realize that in order to change the direction of a counter variable’s movement within a loop he could add a direction or speed variable in place of the constant 1 that he was currently adding to the counter. And then change the variable. The problem was I didn’t want to use the word ‘variable’ because I felt like that would just give him the answer. We had done similar problems earlier in the week (and had explicitly used a variable for something not too dis-similar in our opening exercise that day).

So after I spent several minutes trying to get him to figure out that he needed a variable, he politely turned to me and said “I think you think you’re telling me something useful, but I just don’t understand.” Ouch. Then I asked him to read the hint that I had provided for that question on the worksheet – verbatim it was “Think about using a speed or direction variable that can be positive or negative depending on which direction your counter is counting.” He still didn’t get it. So that is the point when I had to realize that whether he hadn’t heard it or hadn’t remembered it, he certainly didn’t have access to the information about what a variable is and how it is used. Ouch, again.

In any case, the teaching lesson is probably that more repetition is a good thing. And that repeating what you just repeated is essential. Although I keep hoping for the magic bullet to get the kids engaged enough that they actually care to remember, which is frustrating to say the least.

But before I get too depressed, let’s think about the learning side of this. I think the reason that I think I missed it in my original taxonomy was that as a learner it’s hard to know what you didn’t hear. Or what you misunderstood. And as you are learning a new skill, if you do it without feedback from others it’s really easy to go down some crazy rabbit hole of wrong learning (but maybe this has some chance of resulting in creating something new).

One way to combat this that I have noticed most recently in yoga class is that there are other learners around you, so there is some immediate feedback. And although I try to keep focus on myself while I’m taking class, there is certainly a different kind of feedback loop in this kind of physical activity than when you have a class of students sitting at individual computers. For instance, I’m taking a new (to me) series of poses at a studio which was recently only teaching the standard Bikram 26 pose series. And I’ve caught myself any number of times moving through the sequence I know so well without hearing the teacher’s instructions to do something different. But having the feedback of the students around me do the ‘right’ poses helps me to quickly get back on track.

How can I apply that to the programming classroom? Maybe take another run at pair programming? Or have the students that are ‘getting it’ help those that aren’t?   And how do I apply this to my own learning?

And for my own learning I definitely need to figure out tighter feedback loops for many of the things I’m working on.

In any case, when I revisit my initial taxonomy (hopefully after getting a few more related posts under my belt) I suspect I’ll have to add a “Simple Student Error” below the “Simple Expert Error” category.

I’m going to try something a bit different.  I started a “Reconcilable Differences” blog in my usual style.  Which I would describe as a (hopefully) humorous observation about something related to learning, often inspired by something that happened in one context that shook something loose that I’ve been picking at in a different context.  Since I am doing a decent amount of breadth right now I have enough different contexts (teaching high school computer science, doing three kinds of yoga, taking several kinds of dance, learning a language, etc.) that I can generally at least keep myself interested with the combinations and juxtapositions between my activities.

However, I had a blog fail on this post.  And then another one.  And I realized that part of the problem was that I was pulling off a bigger chunk than I could handle in a single post.  And then I realized that there are several topics that are very much top of mind that I haven’t dug into since they don’t really fit into my usual format.

So I’m going to try something a bit different this time.  Oh, I already mentioned that, didn’t I?

This is the first post in a series.  I will most likely interleave other posts in my more traditional style with the series.  And if I get really ambitious I’ll start other series on some of the other subjects that I’ve been stuck on.  But I am going to try to get my words wrapped around a slightly larger idea than the ones I’ve been attacking recently.

The seed of the “Reconcilable Differences” thread was planted in computer science class recently.  We had an incident where I said something and one of the other volunteer teachers said the exact opposite a few minutes later.  Was one of us wrong?  Were we both right in different contexts? Were both of us wrong?   Are there other reasons why the experts in the room might contradict each other?  Or your teacher contradict your textbook?  What do you do when your teacher or coach tells you to do something exactly the opposite way from some other expert?

Well, I think my first pass at that is that you ask or use other means to figure out why there is an apparent contradiction.  And I think this feeds into a very important part of learning, at least for me.  It is one means of becoming  an expert even if it’s on some micro-subject or small slice of what one is trying to learn.

Then as I started to blog about that incident I started popping out way too many examples to fit into a single post.  And I also realized that my rapidly piling up set of anecdotes might fit into a taxonomy.  And that taxonomy might be a useful tool to help me learn.  Possibly even useful to decide when it’s most useful to ask an expert, to worry at a solution myself, or to just forget the issue.  And really, for myself, being able to do the last of those would probably represent a massive boost in efficiency of learning if I could do that quickly and in the right circumstances.  Perhaps it will also be useful to others.

So here is my initial taxonomy of “Reconcilable Differences” in roughly increasing order of interest.

  1. Simple Expert Error
    • One of the experts is just wrong.
    • Both of the experts are wrong.
    • One of them is answering a different question.
    • You just misheard one of the experts.
  2. External Context Issues
    • You’re tying to apply something that an expert said in one domain to a different domain and it doesn’t translate.
    • One source is significantly older than another and the ‘right’ answer has changed in the intervening time.
  3. Personal Differences/Internal Context Issues
    • The ‘right’ answer is different for different levels of expertise and you are attempting to reconcile advice given to a beginner with advice given to the current you who is more advanced.
    • You overcompensated between the time you got the original advice and the time that you got the follow up advice – so you really do need to do the opposite (just less).
    • Bodies are different – even experts don’t always do the translation from their body type to yours accurately.
    • Minds are different – it’s easy for a teacher to have an inaccurate representation of what you know and give advice based on that.
  4. Language issues
    • Experts have slightly different definitions of words.
    • Language is just ambiguous.

Over the next few posts I’m going to make an attempt to pull of my favorites of these and expand on them in something closer to my usual style, but tied back to the more general theme.  In the process I’m giving myself permission to modify or even outright rewrite the above list.  So this is a good time for comments if you’ve got ideas for an altered taxonomy.