Unwitting Learning — Mark Morton

On Taxi, a TV sitcom from the 1980s, there’s an episode in which Jim Ignatowski, whose memory has been permanently addled by chronic drug use, sits down at a piano and is startled when his hands begin to move over the keys and a beautiful sonata flows forth. “I must have had lessons,” he mutters, with surprise. I felt a bit like that last week when I turned on the car radio, which my kids had inadvertently tuned to Radio Canada. As I listened to the French-language newscast, I was amazed that I could understand it. Two years ago I could read French, but I had almost no aural comprehension of it — I simply had a terrible ear. Moreover, over the course of the last two years, I hadn’t studied or tried to improve my comprehension of spoken French one bit. So what happened?

Well, what happened was that two years ago I began studying Arabic at Renison University College. I suspect that as I worked hard to understand Arabic words, phrases, and eventually sentences,  I developed auditory processing skills that I previously didn’t have. True, those skills emerged because I was studying Arabic — but they transferred over, without any conscious effort on my part, to French as well. It’s a bit like developing motor skills by playing tennis, and then discovering that you’ve also, unwittingly, become a better dancer.

Of course there must be limits to this sort of “skills transfer.” Mastering chess might make me a better bridge player, and it might even make me better able to spot logical fallacies in my kids’ arguments about why they should be allowed to stay up late, but it won’t make me a better driver on the 401. Or might it? Is it possible that everything we learn enhances everything else that we’ve previously learned? !آمل ذلك


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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