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Which word or idea makes you stumble?

Francisco Miraval

I recently had the good fortune of meeting an educator, now retired, who shared with me anecdotes about his long career. I asked him what “education” meant for him and he immediately said that education is the process of detecting the words that create obstacles for a student and then helping the student to overcome those obstacles.

Talking about elementary school students, this educator provided many examples of students who, facing a word they never saw before, simply stop reading and, in many cases, they don’t even ask for help.

However, he said, those cases are easy to resolve because the student acknowledges that he/she found a word he/she doesn’t understand. With help and the proper methodology, the student will learn the meaning of the “new” word and, more importantly, will incorporate the word to his/her vocabulary.

There is, however, a more complex situation. Sometimes, a student finds a word, be it at school or at home, and, because he/she knows one meaning of that word, the student assumes he/she understand what that word means in that particular context. Consequently, the student arrives to a wrong conclusion of the meaning of the word, sometimes with absurd and hilarious results.

Those cases are more challenging because the student believes he/she understood what he/she read or heard, when in fact that’s not the case. In the case of students in elementary school, they also have the challenge of accepting new meanings for words they already know. For example, how many meanings the word “one” has. One can only guess.

The educator I met, clearly a wise person (and, by the way, with degrees in several fields, from medicine to AI), told me there is a case even more difficult to solve, perhaps the hardest one to solve, even harder than a student not knowing a word or knowing only one meaning of the word. And that’s the case of adults and, more precisely, professional adults finding a “new” word.

Why? Because, contrary to what children do (they stop reading), adults don’t stop and, even worse, they create their own meaning for the word or idea they don’t understand. Among professionals, the problem is even worse because they can’t admit, to themselves or to others, that they don’t know.

According to the educator, instead of acknowledging they stumble upon a case of their own ignorance, professionals keep going, traveling farther and farther in the path of ignorance, being certain they know when, in fact, they don’t.

The educator told me about a lawyer who, not knowing the meaning of “alas”, thought it was similar to “at last” and, therefore, used “alas” to indicate the conclusion of his arguments.

Perhaps they were never taught how to stop and reflect if they find a “small mystery”, such as a new word or idea. Or perhaps they were taught, but they never learned to “look inside” and recognize they don’t know.

Each word or idea that causes you to stumble is an excellent opportunity for self-discovery.

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