May 072008

Here are a couple of items that need reticulating.

The first is this article at Wired Magazine about Piotr Wozniak and how to remember things. No, it’s not all in the wrist. Instead, as with stand-up comedy, it’s about timing.

The second is this web site about block scheduling, one of the latest fads that’s ruining our secondary schools. Actually, the fad started some time ago. We had a big battle about it in our own school district several years ago, back when I still had a kid in high school. But the battle is still being waged — the educational establishment vs. actual evidence about how people learn.

One thing the Wired Magazine article didn’t mention was the Pimsleur language courses, which as far as I can tell are based on the very same principles that Wozniak is studying and promoting. It criticizes Rosetta Stone (which I’ve never used) but for some reason doesn’t mention Pimsleur. And I think the Pimsleur method does work, even though for me the switch from tape cassettes to MP3 has been a step backwards in getting the timings right as Pimsleur intended. MP3 players *could* be a huge improvement over cassettes, but… well, that’s a rant for another day.

There is one piece of the Wired article that could be guaranteed to draw jeers from the educational establishment. I’ve been there myself at a board meeting where the superintendent argued against me, repeating all the educational cliches about why learning facts doesn’t matter. So I was glad to see this article take on that particular canard:

The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.

The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.

And as for the Block Scheduling controversy, it’s not as though the traditional scheduling of high school classes was designed to get the spacing effect just right. (I hadn’t known about the term “spacing effect” before reading the Wired article, but I knew about it.) But Block Scheduling is a huge step in the wrong direction. When we were doing research on it during our local controversy, we came to find out that language and music teachers were some of the biggest opponents. They know how their subjects get learned, even if they don’t know about it to the degree of mathematical precision described by Wozniak. And that sort of learning also plays a huge role in other subject disciplines. But anti-intellectualism now rules in our schools.

Educators will tell you that education is about a lot more than memorization.   Very true.   It is more than that.  But it shouldn’t be less than that.

  • Hi there,
    We offer Pimsleur on audiobook chips, which are SD memory cards with digital audio. The nice thing is, your place is kept each time you pause or stop, so you don’t lose where you are like with MP3s or CDs. Hopefully this would resolve your frustration with the MP3s, and still allow you to use Pimsleur without a CD player either.