Explain to me like I’m five again

Not until my early 30s did I realised I had misinterpreted the intention of education. Before then – and intensely so as a child – I saw school primarily as a place to behave. Sadly, my child logic carried this through to meaning that if I did not instantly comprehend all lessons, that I was being naughty. Basically, I thought that not understanding something, was equal to misbehaving.

Unfortunately, rather than this pushing me to become a straight A student, the daily anxiety of being caught not understanding something, combined with dyslexia, led to a paradoxically defensive approach to school: Squeezing through, behaving as much as possible, faking understanding when I could, and playing as many tricks as possible to hide being naughty, aka not learning in lessons. Questions in this environment, felt more like a request to be told off.

In my 30s when it finally clicked, I had the most intense feeling of wishing I could redo my childhood. Just imagine! Being able to go through school believing it was there to teach me, not just berate me. That would be awesome.

Processing all this over the past few years has been interesting. I don’t blame anyone in particular for my misunderstanding. Sure, there are one or two teachers that I think of, ones that seemed most frustrated by my inability to grasp concepts that they found obvious, but mostly I just feel relieved and kind of excited. Particularly now that I’m getting more involved in education and have the opportunity to teach and learn at the same time.

I think this whole experience and realisation is fuelling my love at the moment for the following type of resource. Video, websites and podcasts that hold their hand up high, and acknowledge that there are things we don’t understand, or that we can work on understanding some more.

  1. Neuroscientist Bobby Kasthuri explains one concept in 5 Levels of difficulty. (this video was originally from Wired but it seems to have been removed. From YouTube also). Check how he engages with each level of understanding, inviting and encouraging their ideas, never telling them they are wrong, and then excitedly offering his own understanding in a way that they can relate and react to.
  2. The entireExplain Like I’m Five subreddit is a joy to read. It allows you to secretly dip into those subjects that you might be embarrassed to say that you don’t understand, or top up on ones that you only kind of get. It asks the questions that you may be afraid to, and in the process, slowly dissolves that illusion that it’s only you that doesn’t understand everything.
  3. The new Tell Me Something I Don’t Know podcast from the people at Freakonomics is also doing it’s bit for celebrating questions and honest discovery: “Audience contestants are invited on stage to tell us something we don’t know. Three celebrity panelists — a mix of leaders in science, politics, sports, and comedy — grill the contestants and by the end we’ve all gotten a bit smarter. Each episode has a new topic, new panelists, and new contestants. There’s also a real-time human fact-checker to filter out the bull.”  Pitting regular audience members against the celebrity panelists is an ingenious method of revealing that the latter isn’t infallible. Imagine how powerful it would be to have politicians or world leaders shown in the process of learning something new. Showing that not understanding – but being willing to learn – is OK.