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Increasing Comprehension

By: Shami Dugal

Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective created by Agatha Christie is famous for using his “little grey cells” and constantly chides his stalwart sidekick Hastings for depending on his emotions. Just like Perry Mason, he is another fictional example of someone who consistently outthinks his opponents in deducing the facts.

What does this have to do with comprehension? I find that most people are not willing to think for themselves and would rather depend on a trusted news anchor, public opinion or the internet to be swayed on decisions, even important ones.  

I believe the problem starts with our education system. The 3 R’s, reading, writing and arithmetic are on the decline. Professionals such as doctors and engineers do not know the difference between “their” and “there”. Why do you use “its” versus “it’s”? Cashiers provide incorrect change oblivious to the rules of addition and subtraction.

There is lethargy and lack of discipline in society where the very fundamentals of communication and commerce are ignored. Old fashioned dialogue and mental gymnastics are not as cool as a smart phone and acronyms. I tend to LMAO when I see such behavior.

Back to comprehension and our education system. Curriculum is being dumbed down and assessment of student achievement in class is considered class warfare – separating the over and under achievers in case someone’s sensibilities are upset. Our leaders wonder why our students fare poorly on a world scale of education.

I remember as a child traveling by car on long journeys with my grandfather and having to answer questions like, “I can give you ten dollars a day for ten days or a dollar on day one and double the amount every day for ten days – which would you prefer?”  I was probably six years old.

There are many lessons in this question: Addition, multiplication, power series, comparison, but most importantly the comprehension of how this applies to real life. One option provides a great deal more money than the other.

He was a business man, self-made, who started on his own at age sixteen. I really disliked the car rides with him because the entire journey, except when he mercifully dozed off, was one question after another. However, I have great value for those lessons today.

Our schools are meant to provide us with similar lessons as the ones I received from my grandfather. We are supposed to learn new terms and concepts and problem solving. They require effort. The teachers should be spending time to explain not only the concepts but also relate them to everyday situations that students can understand. This type of comprehension is not taking place.

Correspondingly, students should be going over class work, reviewing these lessons and making sure they understand what is being taught or asking for clarification in class. Asking questions without further thought promotes laziness and does not encourage learning. If a rigorous process of learning is used, tests should not present a problem as they appear to for educators.

Consider what happens when these students enter the business world. The grounding they should have received in school is missing. Many of them have been given an easy way out in school, not properly tested or faced consequences for poor grades. The result is a work force with diluted intellect and talent.

These are fighting words and I expect to receive rebuttal. When Bill Cosby berated his own race for poor parenting some years ago, he was told he had a big mouth. It’s true. He spoke the truth. I remember him when he started working the comedy clubs in the 60’s and 70’s. I am sure someone helped him along the way as many others may have been helped (“you didn’t do that by yourself…”), but you have to accept responsibility for your lot in life.

The current political race for presidency is another example of needing to understand issues and asking fundamental questions, not along party lines. If Obamacare is bad, why can someone today not get insurance if they have a hereditary medical issue? How is that fair? If there is an alternative approach, why has it not surfaced for the past fifty years or more? What has been done to prevent insurance companies from creating groups of individuals that favor the insurers versus the insured, and summarily rejecting those with medical issues?

If government has taken over saving jobs and creating them because of poor economic circumstances, what is the plan to turn job creation back to the private sector? Where is the strategic vision? Neither party nor leader has presented a vision and they have not been pressed to do so. I mean, really pressed. As in, we are not moving to question two until such time as you answer the first question. If you choose not to, this party rally is over; now!

Why is it acceptable to propose job creation figures without fully defensible rationale? The substantiation that we will figure it out as a bi-partisan task down the road because that is how it was done by Reagan is also a way to “kick the job can” down the road. This is not the same America as twenty or thirty years ago. The rules and circumstances for collaboration across party lines have changed.

One has to be sure of comprehending issues in order to ask insightful questions. Our minds are dulled with negative ads and our reliance on someone else to do the thinking for us. The political pundits have told us nothing useful in the past year that is not hype and conjecture. We have no idea which facts, figures and proposals hold water because the issues are so enormous and complex that we cannot comprehend them. We have not learned how to do that. The public is also not asking for factual details; all they are getting is party propaganda.

We need to create a new generation of thinkers who truly use their intellect and understand how the world works, and should work. We need small classes, bright teachers, who can enlighten, make sure students comprehend what they are being taught. Parents have to take an interest in what is being taught, even if they have to go back to school.

We need to: listen, read, perceive, contemplate, grasp, discuss and comprehend.


Shami Dugal was born in India and holds dual citizenship of Canada and the United States. He is a product of the British and North American education systems, and some “home schooling” as narrated in the article. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Operations Research from University of Waterloo (Canada) and an MPA from Drake University (Des Moines, Iowa). He can be reached at [email protected].


Photo courtesy of sodahead.com.

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