No. 8 — Conversations in the park
The mysterious passengers
He saw them get on the bus at the Hangares station and observed them closely: the wrinkled shirts, the black shoes, their neat ties… Both of them were hugging their backpacks to their chests, as if what they carried inside was a deadly weapon, or the very secret of salvation. They didn’t talk much.
He turned to see the other passengers to check if anyone else noticed them, but no one seemed to flinch. Everyone went about their business: listening to reggaeton a little too loud, staring out the window, falling half asleep…
The next day they got on at the same station. He thought he’d like to have a suit like theirs one day, even though they always looked like they were on their way to a funeral. What if that’s their actual job? Work hours must be hard. There never seems to be a set time to pass away.
He then wondered if they were secret agents. The last time he saw them, they were whispering at each other while discretely pointing at someone. After that they both closed their eyes. Perhaps they were downloading some kind of secret information into their memories, or trying to foresee the future. There is something very magical about secret agents and that is that no one knows anything about them…
That afternoon, for the first time, he decided to approach them. The bus was dodging lunar craters on the avenue, and a few people got off in Santa Teresa. He saw that there was an empty seat in front of them so he made his way through the crowd and managed to get there after saying “excuse me” nine times. When he finally got around to it, he tried to be discreet (as if he was a secret agent himself). He glued his eyes to the window to dissimulate, but he was listening to everything they were saying: the short syllables, the mispronounced “r’s”, the “h’s” that sounded like “j’s”... He wanted to say something but he was also trying to build the perfect sentence in his mind first. When he finally found the ideal phrase, the two men made their way out and got off at the next station.
“Aprender” is “to learn”
The two strangers from the chicken bus did not work at a mortuary, and they weren’t secret agents (although they were here on a mission). They were two American mormon missionaries recently appointed to serve in Guatemala for two years to teach the gospel. And Carlitos, who at the time was 12, was not eavesdropping just because. He had been trying to learn English on his own, and after hearing them talk, he was immediately curious.
Although many different things can spark a deep curiosity to learn, they say necessity is the mother of invention. Carlitos knew from a very young age that if he wanted a different life from the one his parents had, he had to work hard to earn good money. And speaking English was an important differentiator.
When the need for something becomes imperative, you are forced to find ways of achieving it. He started by watching tons of YouTube videos and practicing on a few apps until he reached a point where he fell stuck. It was hard for him to measure if his pronunciation was right, if his sentences were properly structured, or if he could even sustain a short conversation…
One day, Carlitos and his mom (one of my personal heroes), were on their way back home on the bus when the two missionaries hopped on. She, too, heard them speak this unfamiliar language and looked at her son with an accomplice look. When the missionaries hopped off a few stations after, she grabbed Carlitos by the arm and followed them. She ran trying to catch up, and after a block or so, they finally turned around and saw her. Stuttering while catching her breath, and with a humbling smile on her face, she explained that her son was learning English and that he needed someone he could practice with. Turns out, the missionaries also needed someone to practice their Spanish, so right there and then, they made a deal.
The deal was very simple, yet incredibly effective: they will meet in the park to just… talk. Carlitos will practice his English skills and the missionaries will practice their Spanish. It was a win-win.
The Expertise Reversal Effect
Although he wasn’t sure why, Carlitos had hit a roadblock learning on his own. He had already learned the basics through explanatory material, but now they seemed almost redundant and ineffective for his learning process. He knew that if he wanted to really improve, he needed some real-life experience.
This has been researched before: "passive" learn-by-step-by-step-instruction is effective for beginners, but ineffective for the advanced -and viceversa-. It's called the Expertise Reversal Effect, and it’s when instructional guidance, which may be essential for novices, may have negative consequences for more experienced learners.
Think of Duolingo, the language learning app. When they ask you to translate a sentence and you have a mistake, they point to the mistake and give you a short explanation of the solution's details. This is a case of fully guided instruction, and according to the Expertise Reversal Effect, it works great for novice learners.
Now, if you’re a more knowledgeable learner, you benefit more from unguided instruction: exploratory learning, problem solving, having a real conversation with someone who is fluent in the language…
When I first read about the Expertise Reversal Effect, I was surprised. I’ve always thought that practical learning, simulations, and hands-on experiences are effective for learners that are exploring something for the first time. I was (very) wrong. A study by Rieber and Parmley (1995) demonstrated that when adults learned laws of mechanics from unstructured simulations (designed as free exploration), the results were significantly worse than those for an example-based, tutorial condition.
To understand the reason behind this rationale, it helps to think of your brain like a closet. If you are more knowledgeable, it’s likely that your closet will be pretty organized. Your clothes will be separated according to categories and distinctions, and you can easily find your yellow shirt with the rest of the warm colors. If you’re a novice, your closet might look more like that of a messy teenager who doesn’t know where to find his own socks (no offense to the teenagers).
Novices lack sophisticated schemas. But instructional guidance is a great way to construct those missing “shelves”.
Fast Forward 6 years
Carlitos, now 18, just graduated high school. He’s one of the most driven, curious persons I know, and his English skills recently granted him a job in a big company in Guatemala. It’s the first time someone in his family has made it this far professionally!
He still remembers the missionaries: the driving force behind the opportunities to practice, fail fast, and gain confidence.
The story of a 12-year old tripping over his words while talking with some foreigners seven years older than him, moves me in ways I can't explain. It also reminds me of the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone to learn deeply and effectively, and to search, deliberately and without fear, to have more "conversations in the park"...
Carlitos and Fide, his mom, on his High School graduation.