Describing the Elephant

Image Credit: Sarahemcc

A lot of people are experience rich but theory poor. They lack the theoretical framework to contextualise and understand their daily experiences and are therefore, likely to repeat the mistakes of their experiences because they lack the tools to reflect upon it. The theoretical framework provides the prism to view and understand their experiences. It also provides the words to adequately describe their experiences to others. 

I have worked with academics who lacked the pedagogical framework to contextualise their teaching experiences so they ended up doing the same thing for many years without really understanding why they were doing it. The problem with higher education across the world is that majority of lecturers are not trained teachers. This is because most academics with PhDs are only trained and supported to be effective researchers in their discipline. They lack the skills to teach their subject in the classroom. There is the assumption that if you are an expert then you can communicate your expertise to anyone. This is a false assumption and this is why we can have bad teaching in universities.

John Godfrey Saxe’s “The blind men and the elephant” poem illustrates how easily experiential knowledge can be misleading without an illuminating framework to view and understand it.

The blind men and the elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

2 replies on “Describing the Elephant”

Very true. Too often we simply accept our experiences at face value and fail to look either for existing theoretical support for the results we have achieved or, in its absence, to test our result to develop a principle that others can apply. We need to evaluate our performance (even when its good) and learn from it, least we erroneously build our careers on ‘flukes’.

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