Unimaginably large numbers: why we have to keep learning relevant to what we know.

Do you know how many people died in the Second World War? I was reading a book about Yuri Gagarin last night, when i read something that stopped me in my tracks. I literally had to stop reading and think about it. The sentence mentioned that nearly twenty four million Russians died in WWII. Twenty four million? I couldn’t tell you why this surprised me, i guess i knew it was a lot, but i had to stop and google the numbers: estimates vary between sixty to eighty million dead in total. An estimate that might be out by twenty million?

These numbers are unreal. Quite why this particular one stopped me i couldn’t say, but i guess it stood in stark parallel to the number of dead in more recent conflicts, which, whilst tragic, tend to be measured in the dozens, the hundreds or the thousands. These figures are somehow more real, more imaginable. Millions are abstract to me, at least in this context.

I guess one way that we try to make these numbers real is by comparison. Knowing that a million people is the population of Birmingham means that i can start to imagine what twenty four times that is like, but only in a reasonably abstract way. I can’t make the connection between one personal tragedy and twenty four million of them.

Sometimes we tend to focus on big numbers, when smaller ones can be more effective. It’s the equivalent of one in three residents of the UK dying. That’s a figure i can understand more easily.

We often deal with numbers in learning, but finding ways to make them more understandable, more personal, more relevant is quite a challenge. Knowing that an initiative will save ten million dollars is maybe less powerful than knowing that it will save $200 per person, or that it will save ten lives. Ultimately, i guess we deal at a personal level in most things we do, so anything that comes closer to what we know, what we understand in a concrete manner, will be more powerful than something totally abstract.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Barriers to Learning, Complexity, Education, Effectiveness, Information and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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