Rich Paxson

In the Discussion Forum of this unit, share your step-by-step guide for the process of hand washing. Then pick another person’s instructions, move to a sink and follow the instructions slowly, step by step. You will do exactly what the instructions say, exactly as they say it and nothing more!

A useful definition of handwashing needs an illustrative metaphor held in common with the listener who does not know about hand washing but feels a need to learn about it. In other words, to describe hand washing effectively, the presenter must know some audience-specific facts.

I used communications exercises like this back in the 1970s when I taught geography at Kodiak, Alaska’s public high school. Freshly graduated from college in Chicago, I had just driven 6,000 miles up the gravel Alaska Highway to my first teaching position.

My students came from local Kodiak homes, and from villages located all around Alaska. One class I taught had all first-year, Inuit kids who knew English as their second language. Kodiak, with a population of five thousand, was a metropolis to these younger village children.

In the 1970s we were limited most of the time to communications media like paper and pencil, speaking and listening, and white chalk on a blackboard. The communications exercise I have in mind used all three of these media. One student went to the blackboard to wait for directions from the class. The rest of the students had paper copies of a diagram, which they were to describe to the student at the board, whose job was to reproduce the image as accurately as possible. Speaking one at a time, students tried explaining what they saw on the paper. The blackboard quickly revealed success or failure!

A fairly standard communications exercise, what intrigued me about my class was the languages the students used. Beginning with English, after a minute or less, students switched to Inuit, which reformed what had been arbitrary lines on the blackboard into accurate renditions of the diagram on the paper. Everyone enjoyed the Inuit language successes with great merriment, which I saw as pretty universal for thirteen to fifteen-year-old kids, even as I had no idea what they were saying in particular!

Whether it’s hand washing, hand wringing, drawing on a blackboard, or learning technical operations predicated on specific, complex ideas and concepts, learning is contingent upon a starting point of mutual understanding between teacher and student. My ‘geography of knowledge’ says that we need a recognizable beginning point before we can start to move into a new cognitive territory.