Avoiding The Adjective Fallacy


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://betterexplained.com/articles/adjective-fallacy/

Your table has two errors: “old” and/or “Italian” do not go between “a” and “car.” I’m sure you know this. So I’m puzzled over why the errors? Is it to see how many people will comment, perhaps indicative of how many people actually read your blog? Regardless of the number, please keep up the good work. Your heart’s in the right place. Lord knows, we need help. I’m currently struggling with the meaning of discontinuities in functions of a complex variable. Can you help? Whether or not, thank you for your effort and kindness.

@George Frank:

I don’t see anything wrong with “a beautiful old Italian touring car”

If the square wooden hat boxes were old, would you say “square old wooden hat boxes”? I’d say “old square wooden hat boxes”.

Sorry, my mistake. I thought the words in the table were to be taken one at a time.

But I learned English when I was a baby, through constant immersion. I learned calculus in high school, an hour a day in a lecture. You can’t take just some aspects of one method, and plop them down in another context, and expect them to work. Adults don’t learn the same way babies do. You can’t pick up intuition in 5 hours a week the same way you can if you’re exposed 100 hours a week.

Once you know the basics, then you can learn the more subtle and complex rules through intuition and immersion. Once you know the meaning of all those adjectives, somebody can tell you “Old little lady sounds wrong. Say little old lady instead.” Even in (native) English class, we had to drill the basics by rote. We had weekly quizzes on vocabulary and spelling and so forth.

What you’re proposing sounds kind of like trying to teach the basics through intuition. That’s like taking somebody who doesn’t know any of the adjectives, and saying “Old little lady” (FROWN!), “Little old lady” (SMILE!). They don’t understand the concepts so trying to teach through immersion is essentially just requiring them to derive the rules themselves.

This is also what a lot of dance instruction gets wrong. You know how some people say “I just can’t dance”, while other people say “Anybody can dance!”? Most dance teachers I’ve had say things like “More graceful!” or “Take a chance!” or “Just feel the music!” but if they haven’t taught you the basic vocabulary first, these instructions are meaningless to you. (I’m not trying to be ungraceful here.) In fact, there are a few basic principles of body movement, for any given style of dance. Once you learn those you’ll look pretty good, and be able to start thinking about higher-level instructions. But if you don’t know them, then no amount of “More graceful!” will help.

Alex, you make a very valid point. “You can’t take just some aspect of one method, and plop them down in another context.” But there’s an intuitive part to most learning that we need to pay attention to. I am trying to learn French, and while the dictionary and the rules of grammar are very important, indispensable, actually, I found that immersing myself in both the written and spoken language, is what made me want to go on. When I read as much as I could, the rules came much more easily–some part of my brain had absorbed them.

I think you’re spot on for describing the pedagogical approach needed to help persons inclined towards the major learning categories (kinetic, visual, and audible), and how ineffective our generic pedagogy fails many people.

The Socratic method is ineffective at scale, but the resources for more individualized education hasn’t been a priority. It would be nice to have a more modern approach.

Kalid, but what about ESL people? I did learn the order of adjectives from the big list, when I was in my late teens. It helped me bridge what I already knew from other sources (the list data structure) to what I was learning (a new language).

I think structured learning can help to transfer intuitions we already have to new areas. Which, I think, complements the points you made.

Hi Maria, great comment. I think adults may be able to mix the structured content with the intuitive understanding more than children. They also have a wealth of experience that they can bring to the rules so they don’t seem as abstract as they may appear initially.

Anecdotally I have some experience here. I often tell my students that lecture is a luxury earned. See, without your basic intuition and understanding of the structure of language from your native tongue, that structured educational approach would have been a LOT of memorization with little-to-no understanding of the topic. But since you already had an intuition on how to speak from your previous home (you mentioned you learned English in High School), you were making assumptions and comparisons on a level you may not have even been aware you were making; after all, the human brain is an incredible thing. You were transferring your understanding of language into a new structure and using your previous understanding to decipher the correct forms you were learning. In a shorter way of putting it, you built enough of an understanding on the topic that you earned the luxury of having lecture and rules charts be actually beneficial to your understanding. Most (95%+) kids I work with don’t have enough experience and understanding to be able to benefit from a math class that allows them to sit there and watch math happen. They don’t “hear” it like a story that is read in an English class. Math is somehow different for them yet it accomplishes a lot of the same goals as English. In the end, I know for a fact a large portion of the issue is that in the early years, topics in math are taught as those rote memorization pieces by people who don’t understand a lot of deeper math themselves. As such, math becomes a race in busy work to pass a test and not the beautiful storyteller it actually is in reality.

tl;dnr I know, but in the end, building these experiences, however one finds a way to do it, is integral to saving math’s perception in America. I know the most successful unit I ever taught was Parametric Equations and that sprouted from an email correspondence with Kalid turning into an article about sunscreen and ice cream. Those kids SAW it. They used that initial lesson, its intuition, to dissect any of the lessons that followed. And I mean just about everyone. I had kids who failed in previous years, one girl who was CI, and a bunch of other fringe kids right there with the straight-A students. It was incredible, it was fun, and it was what school should be like for kids.