On Goals and Systems

Disclaimer: Note that while I work as a public servant, this is entirely my own initiative and what I post here does not necessarily reflect the view of the government, my office or my position there in.

This week, I read an excellent article by James Clear at Entrepreneur.com, entitled Forget Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead. Clear discusses the difference between goals and the systems employed to achieve them. The article made me think about what sort of system could be applied to my language learning, specifically to the French language, given my current efforts. With my background, I also considered how the scientific method could be applied, with systematic and repeatable results at its core.

The Scientific Method
“The goal of a scientific inquiry is to obtain knowledge in the form of testable explanations that can predict the results of future experiments. Scientific knowledge is closely tied to empirical findings, and always remains subject to falsification if new experimental observation incompatible with it is found. That is, no theory can ever be considered completely certain, since new evidence falsifying it might be discovered. If such evidence is found, a new theory may be proposed, or (more commonly) it is found that minor modifications to the previous theory are sufficient to explain the new evidence.”

Keeping a journal of one’s efforts – a requirement in science – should also be done in language learning. When I used to judge at the Calgary Youth Science Fair, I would tell the brilliant students that scientists keep a journal so that if someone else comes into the lab where I am working and finds my empty shoes on the floor and a blackened hole on the ceiling, that person can read my journal and make sure they try something else. As a wise woman wrote : “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” (Rita Mae Brown, Sudden Death). If you do not know what you did to fail, success then becomes a game of chance.

External Validation
Science requires external validation to eliminate bias.

“Scientific inquiry is generally intended to be as objective as possible in order to reduce biased interpretations of results. Another basic expectation is to document, archive, and share all data and methodology so they are available for careful scrutiny by other scientists, giving them the opportunity to verify the results by attempting to reproduce them. This practice, called full disclosure, also allows statistical measures of the reliability of the data to be established (when data is sampled or compared to chance).”

What used to be my goal – to get EEE on my language test – now becomes the next validation of the results of my system. So the day I take my government language test, that will be the entry in my journal: the external validation of my learning system. Of course, each day I will also record the slightly more biased results, such as how I replied automatically in French to a question or how I watched a movie in French and understood almost 50% of the content and 75% of the meaning or how I read an entire chapter of La Peste (Albert Camus) and did not have to look up any words.

We will see how it goes.


Craig Sellars
Craig Sellars is a passionate Canadian public servant and biologist. Connect with Craig on Twitter @CraigSellars.

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