Uncovering parallel tracks is essential in contextual learning – where the need is to help learners find applications of an idea in a story or feedback. Precision oftentimes kills the ability of the learner to discover multiple real-life applications.
In In Praise of Vagueness (Wired Magazine July 21, 2011), Jonah Lehrer writes about studies on the benefits of vagueness versus precision.
According to article:
And yet, as William James pointed out, vagueness is not without virtues. Sometimes, precision is dangerous, a closed door keeping us from imagining new possibilities. Vagueness is that door flung wide open, a reminder that we don’t yet know the answer, that we might still get better, that we have yet to fail.
The article reported that experiments in weight control suggest that the more people know precise outcomes or specific feedback, the more likely they get discouraged.
The fuzziness of the facts kept them motivated. The same logic, of course, should apply to any long-term goal (saving for retirement, studying for a difficult test, etc.) that provides us with plenty of feedback along the way.
The practical takeaway is that the weight scales of the future should focus on giving us vague feedback. Forget those decimal points – we need error bars and imprecise estimates. Nothing keeps us motivated like not knowing better.
Bonus benefit of vagueness: According to an experiment led by Catherine Clement at Eastern Kentucky University, one way to consistently increase our problem-solving ability is to rely on vague verbs when describing the problem. That’s because domain-specific verbs – actions which we only perform in particular contexts – inhibit analogical reasoning, making us less likely to discover useful comparisons. However, when the same problem is recast with more generic verbs – when we describe someone as “moving” instead of “sprinting,” for instance – people are suddenly more likely to uncover unexpected parallels. In some instances, Clement found that the simple act of rewriting the problem led to impressive improvements in the performance of her subjects.
Vague stories and feedback intrigue me. In creating micro-scenarios and interactive stories, I often observe what Catherine Clement mentions that "specific action verbs tend to inhibit analogical thinking while generic verbs allow people to uncover parallel tracks."
Uncovering parallel tracks is essential in contextual learning – where the need is to help learners find applications of an idea in a story or feedback. In learning situations where the real-world applications are imprecise due to multiple variables or ever changing content, it is helpful to remind ourselves of parallel track applications.
Precision oftentimes kills the ability of the learner to discover multiple applications.
Ray Jimenez, PhD
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"