Piecemeal Learning

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What if you really did let go of expectations, your own and others’, to embrace a change of perspective on the enterprise of learning you’ve been conducting for years? What if you followed strands of literature and language just to see where they led, learned at your own clip and in your own way, minus the guilt that you should be doing it differently?

This is piecemeal learning.

We’re hardly the first to think up the term. A quick search turns up an abstract published by three researchers at the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT. Their study, full of graphs and algorithms, addresses the problem of how a learner — for example, a security guard robot, a taxi driver, or a trail guide — masters an unknown environment. They argue that learning a grid is best conducted in small increments. A rookie cab driver, for example, would be advised to approach his or her new routes using “piecemeal learning” rather than trying to achieve mastery of city streets in a single coup.

My husband and I heard of this firsthand from a London cabbie several years ago. Proud of his hard-won expertise, our driver regaled us with grisly tales of “the knowledge,” the exam he needed to pass before he could be licensed to drive a cab in a city notorious for its jumbled geography of lanes, squares, mews, and roundabouts. Though we knew nothing of the MIT study then, common sense suggested that little by little, piece by piece, was the only way our driver could have mastered the knowledge and won his Green Badge.

There are limits to any comparison, but it’s reassuring to think about the postmen mentioned in the MIT study who had to return to their base to fill their bags with more mail. They couldn’t carry it all at one time, but used a piecemeal method to complete their task, one address at a time.

What happens when a robot butts up against an obstacle not once, but twice? In the cool clime of the MIT graph, our robot explorer calmly sizes up the obstacle, realizes it is the same one he bumped into before, and assesses its dimensions. No hysteria or self-recrimination.

I covet the mindset of the MIT explorer and my new best friend. It helps to distinguish a boulder from a pebble on the trail, something you can’t do when your mind is in spasm over a possible problem. How great would it be to assess the obstacle in French, whatever it is, then take an accurate account of its dimension? Is the word, phrase, or tense central to the context and how many times have I stumbled upon it? Did it bring our conversation to a halt? Did misunderstanding it (or not knowing it at all) distort my understanding of an entire book or just a single passage? Navigation is impossible when “Houston, we have a problem” is the habitual response to any perceived obstruction in language — or in life.

That piecemeal learning, MIT style, exists is a comforting thought. But it is also methodical, and that’s where I must part ways with my explorer. He will get to his destination a lot faster than me, since my route means twists and turns aided and abetted by the Internet. To crisscross and double back with Post-its and Fisher Space Pens that write even when the writer is upside down is my way of creating an additional French Connection. What can be said about the wild deviations from the grid that give me so much pleasure?

Homeward bound after a trip to central California, I sampled an unexpected délice for speaking French called Français Authentique on my iPhone. The first of Johan’s seven rules made me laugh: Don’t go to a French class. Clearly this explorer had moved off the grid altogether. No grammar? No vocabulary lists? Johan had exquisite points to make about non-traditional language learning, but the thing that impressed me the most was his reasonable claim. He didn’t promise that his acolytes would become fluent, however one defines the word. He guaranteed that learners could améliorer their current level of French, a vocabulary word that bears remembering.

By the time we got to Los Angeles, I had listened to all seven rules, even though Johan had advised us to tackle one day at a time, but that’s the trouble with a hungry piecemeal learner on vacation. She’s just as apt to gobble up the whole artichoke as she is to politely sample one leaf at a time.

— Linda

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