But ... what do you mean?

6th March 2009


So, I was listening to the In our time Radio 4 programme this week, and it was talking about "The measurement problem" - that is, the difficulties of measuring things within some branches of quantum physics.

(Bear with me, please, there is some relevance).

Now, Melvyn Bragg had three contributors, all higly-respected professors in their field, all presumably used to explaining the difficulties of this complex problem to a variety of audiences. And they were all, uniformly, rubbish at doing so. I've got some background in this area, and I could neither retain interest, nor often understand what they were on about.

And I could feel Melvyn's frustration, as he continually had to steer the discussion away from jargon, and rephrase concepts in ways which were understandable to the audience.

(Can you see where I'm going with this now?)

Quantum tango

So, halfway through listening to the programme, I felt a familiar sense of frustration, which I'd encountered many many times in Tango.

Here were a group of experts, leaders in their field, who were trying to explain something in which I had an interest. And I siimply couldn't understand them.

How many times have we all had Tango lessons like that?

So what was the problem? Was I not paying attention enough? No. Was I simply not interested? No.

The problem was with them. They weren't explaining things well. They weren't expressing concepts in a clear, jargon-free manner. They were assuming that the audience understood such terms as "non-locality" and "superstring", and building their expressions based on this.

Now, you could say that this is because the topic matter was inherently complex, too much so for a quick explanation on a popular radio programme. And I'd reply "Rubbish" to that (or possibly something stronger).

Bragg explained things - very well, in fact. I could understand Melvyn Bragg, I couldn't the others.

So my frustration was with this knowledge - I wanted it, I knew they had it, I wanted them to tell it to me, but they simply weren't doing that task. I mean, how hard could it be?

Tango needs a Melvyn

Well, actually, it turns out that it is quite hard.

As we progress in dancing, we forget. We forget how hard it was to do things, we forget our difficulties and frustrations, and we naturally assume that if we can do something, it's not difficult to do. We all go through this stage.

And we use jargon, not because it's to make things difficult for Outsiders to understand, but because it's shorthand. If we're talking to others about "axis", about "leading from the centre", about being "grounded", about "musicality", then it's quicker and simpler to progress a discussion on these areas. But this only works if the person we're talking to understands such concepts.

Otherwise, you're building an Eiffel Tower based on sand.

The "Let's See" problem

A classic example of where teaching falls down is when you're painstakingly working your way through a routine, and during one step you ask your teacher "When you do xyz, what happens with your foot?"

At this point, rather than go, "Ah yes, it does this because of XYZ", most teachers will perform the routine, pause when they get to that point, look down at their own positioning, and say "the foot goes here".

Argh! Why? Does it always go there? What do you mean?

Surely a decent teacher would explain why?


The making of a teacher

None of this is earth-shattering news. Learning stuff is not new to humanity. Neither is teaching stuff.

Tango teachers are all great dancers - of course. Or they look good, at least. And most of them have a good understanding of what is needed to dance Tango well, and they can clearly spot and correct mistakes made by their pupils.

So why can't we understand what they mean?

And how many tango teachers have any formal training in teaching? In round numbers?

I can't help thinking that the fact Google returns:
"Results 1 - 1 of 1 for "tango teaching qualifications"

... is a bit of an indication of the problem.

- David Bailey, 6th March 2009

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