The "Mexican Sushi" Phenomenon

I just coined the term "Mexican sushi" to describe a phenomenon that I witness around me more and more frequently. I doubt that it is really happening more frequently, but I am probably becoming more attuned to noticing it. It's based on the following little parable:

Suppose you own a restaurant--a Mexican restaurant, with an excellent native-born Mexican chef, but business has been falling off. You do some research and discover that nobody eats Mexican food any more. Sushi is all the rage. So you decide to switch over to sushi. You gather the restaurant's staff together to discuss it and they all show 100% enthusiasm--especially the chef: "I've never had sushi but I'm ready for a new direction in life." So you fax her the recipe and she goes out to buy the ingredients and puts her first order of sushi together according to the directions.

How much do you want to bet that somehow the sushi will not be what you are expecting. There are just too many unconscious assumptions made while cooking. Maybe the rice will have cumin in it, or the chef won't have wasabi on hand but figure jalapenos to be a good-enough substitute.

Can a native-born Mexican learn to make authentic sushi? Of course, but it's going to take more than just a recipe. Maybe someone needs to be looking over her shoulder on the first attempt. Maybe you need several cycles of try-taste-feedback-try.

[End of parable.]

Then again--a real-life story--about ten years ago I was at scout camp with my son. He was working on a Scouting requirement, something about constructing a useful device by lashing together sticks. Some of you may not know that in order to lash two sticks together "correctly" you don't just wrap a rope around until it looks "pretty good." Rather you make each joint according to one of several precise recipes depending on the type of joint desired. For example, a "square lashing" (see video above) is designed to connect two sticks at right angles and is constructed according to the formula: clove hitch--three wraps--three fraps--clove hitch.

I sent my son off to practice constructing something and after a while he brought back his creation. Sure enough, the lashings were made according to the "wrap a rope around until it looks pretty good" method. Thereupon followed the following exchange:

"What is this here? How many times did you wrap this?"

"I don't know. It doesn't matter, does it?"

This illustrates one contributing factor to the "Mexican sushi" phenomenon--a human penchant for interpreting a requirement in a set of instructions as a mere "guideline." Conversely a statement intended as a guideline may be interpreted as a strict requirement. Or the instructions may be incomplete and the listener interprets the ambiguity in an unexpected way. Surely you have had experiences such as this when giving directions to the driver of a car: "Take the next right... no, not that one! That's just a parking lot!"

As a rule, getting and giving advice or instructions is a much subtler art than is usually appreciated. I am particularly interested in the Mexican sushi phenomenon as it applies to learning how to make major life changes--weight loss, confronting phobias, financial planning. It's probably both more common and more destructive in such contexts because fundamental attitudes come into play.

1 comment:

Matroid Theory by James Oxley said...

A study I'm reading, "How People Learn", reviews research showing that when an expert describes explicitly his approach to solving some problem, trying to note all the decision points and factors to consider and points of technique, he generally omits 70% of what's necessary. That is, 70% of what goes into expertise is invisible to the expert! Only 30% is even something he is capable of noticing, because the rest has become automatic to him. Maybe this is why sushi instruction manuals aren't enough.

I think students are making mexican sushi a lot of the time. They've missed or misinterpreted significant parts of the instructions, or else they lack the background to make sense of the instructions. As you pointed out, it would be very helpful to have someone looking over the shoulder of the mexican sushi chef, saying no, don't make that substitution, and try forming the rolls with this technique instead. The resolution to the mexican sushi problem is try, get feedback, try again, get feedback, repeat many times, and then open for business. That's why watching amazing lecturers online will never make small classrooms and live teachers obsolete - because a teacher's real value is in providing feedback on what the students have done.

As I believe you've argued here, the resolution to mexican sushi is *not* that we need better instructions. Instructions are inherently insufficient because people's backgrounds are unpredictable / unknown to such an extent that only a feedback loop can control the system to within the desired tolerance. Let the students try, and then constructively criticize the result, instead of trying to improve the instructions in hopes of preventing mistakes. The mistakes are where the learning is.