Posted in Books, Educational Reform, Teaching & Learning, Tips for Students, Tips for Teachers

The Role of Neural Associations in Learning

Excerpted from Triggers, by Stanley Mann:

“Multisensory imagination is the world’s finest teaching machine, and we all possess it.  We simply need to learn how to use it.”

I just came across this great quote in a book I’m reading. The book is about using triggers, or neural associations, to direct one’s attention in constructive ways. The quote comes from a chapter on using triggers to enhance learning ability. It resonates with me on a number of levels.

First of all, the idea of multisensory imagination is a little-known but extremely powerful learning enhancement tool, and is the sort of thing that we should be teaching kids about in school instead of pumping them full of facts and figures. To truly learn anything you have to make it real in your mind, fully engaging with it in your imagination with as many sensory channels as possible; both sight and sound at the very least, and ideally touch, smell, and taste if possible. Conversely, teaching can’t work unless it engages the imagination and the emotions through multiple sensory channels. Educators and curriculum designers need to be mindful of this principle in order to be effective.

Secondly, triggers in general, and learning triggers in particular, rely on the principle of association. Our brains are constantly making associations among various environments, stimuli, and emotional states based on our experience. Neurons that fire together wire together, so when two experiences are repeatedly juxtaposed, they tend to become linked. This means that to optimize your learning process, you need to create a positive physical and mental learning environment for yourself, so that you are comfortable and feeling good while you are learning. Conversely, if the learning environment is physically or mentally uncomfortable, such as by feeling coercive and emotionally unsafe, then the negative feelings it evokes will come to be associated with the process of learning itself, causing them to be re-experienced whenever future learning endeavors are undertaken. This is another principle of human psychology that educators and legislators need to take heed of.

Posted in Inspiration, Teaching & Learning, Tips for Teachers

Bruce Lee On Teaching

“A good teacher can never be fixed in a routine. Each moment requires a sensitive mind that is constantly changing and constantly adapting. A teacher must never impose his student to fit his favorite pattern. A good teacher protects his pupils from his own influence. A teacher is never a giver of truth; he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that each student must find for himself. I am not teaching you anything. I just
help you to explore yourself.”

bruce lee

Posted in Tips for Students, Tips for Teachers

Stop Taking Notes And Pay Attention

What’s one of the worst study habits that many students have which, if they stopped doing it, would drastically increase their retention and understanding and decrease their stress? Hint: it is a habit that many teachers and professors actually encourage!

It is amazing to me that the practice of note-taking in class is so widespread, given how ineffective it is. Chalk it up to tradition, I guess, a hold-over from the days when books were a scarce resource. We already know from studies of business environments that multi-tasking doesn’t work, so why should students be encouraged or even required to multi-task while they are trying to learn? If you are a student, it is best to focus on just one thing while you are in class: listening!

The philosophy of note-taking is patently absurd when you really think about it. The idea is that in class, the teacher verbally recites relevant facts, while students are supposed to split their attention between listening and writing them down, essentially taking dictation and creating a very low-fidelity personal copy of their textbook on the fly. Then the students are supposed to go home and re-learn (or learn for the first time) the information that the teacher gave them in class from this hastily constructed replica.

Isn’t it obvious that the best way to win this game, if you are a student, is to not play it? Isn’t it obvious that the best way to go about things is to read your professionally prepared and neatly organized textbook ahead of time, extract as much understanding from it as you can, and then go to class with a Zen mind, ready to be fully present, listen with your full attention, and ask questions if necessary to fill in the gaps in your understanding? Repetition is necessary for learning, and this way you get exposed to the material twice with your full attention. Unfortunately, if you try to take notes while you are listening, and then try to study from your notes later, you are receiving half-way exposure twice that doesn’t even add up to a whole.

You might object that in your particular subject, there is so much material to remember that taking notes is essential. But this is like saying that the more information there is, the more important it is to transmit it inefficiently. One of the worst subjects for note-taking dogma is organic chemistry, but here is the transcription of an irreverent and light-hearted lecture against lecturing written by a highly influential organic chemistry professor about the “Gutenberg method” of teaching, that makes the same case that taking notes, or expecting your students to, is a waste of time. An excerpt: “Now, if you can’t find a book that is even remotely acceptable to you, then you have to write your own. That’s how books get written. (Well, actually, it’s how books get started; they get finished because your third child is on the way, and you have no money to pay the rent.)” You can read about another professor’s experience with the Gutenberg method here.

You might also object that in this particular class, the teacher or professor teaches in such a way that you HAVE to take notes; that the material required for exams isn’t in the textbook, that you will be tested on information that is presented only once, in class, and nowhere else. While such incompetent teachers and professors may indeed exist, I think what is more relevant is the fact that note-taking is a self-perpetuating process. If you have spent your time in class trying to write things down rather than listening fully, of course you won’t remember what was said, and will feel later like you have to rely on your notes. So just try not taking notes and see what happens. Also remember the importance of pre-studying; read the relevant sections in the textbook ahead of time, so that when you see the material in class it will actually be your second exposure. Also don’t hesitate in asking questions in class; as soon as you feel that something is missing, speak up. As long as you keep up with what is being discussed, you will have no problem absorbing and understanding new material. It is when you start to fall behind in class and stop paying attention, a downward spiral that is enabled and exacerbated by note-taking, that problems start to pile up.

Posted in Inspiration, Math, Tips for Teachers

Why Math Is Easier Than You Think (Part 3)

What Could Be Different

So math is actually easy but we are convinced (or we convince ourselves) that it is hard. What can we do about it? There is a LOT that is wrong with the typical approach to teaching math, but I’ll try to keep this positive and reasonably short. Here are just a few guiding suggestions:

Think Creatively As Well As Critically

Math is known for having only one right answer and thus not thought to be a creative endeavor. However, while there may be only one right answer, there are usually multiple or even unlimited ways to arrive at that answer, which is where divergent thinking has a role to play. Instead of (or at least in addition to) teaching algorithms we can be teaching concepts and principles, throwing them out like legos and letting students decide how to assemble them. Different groups can be given the same objective, and then if they don’t arrive at the same answer they can figure out through discussion where the discrepancy is (this is where critical thinking comes in).

Order Matters

An example of how solutions can be arrived at in different ways is in the order of arithmetic operations. Look at the following numbers and try to add them in your head:

12 + 15 + 11 + 3 + 19

Now try to add them in this order:

19 + 11 + 12 + 3 + 15

It’s easier to do in the second case because of the way they are grouped: 19 + 11 = 30, 12 + 3 = 15, 15 + 15 = 30, 30 + 30 = 60. These steps are all easy to do in your head, making the answer easier to arrive at than if you tried to add them in a different order. Here’s another example, with multiplication:

2 x 7 x 3 x 5

Now multiply them in this order:

7 x 3 x 2 x 5

It’s easy to do 7 x 3 = 21, 2 x 5 = 10, and 21 x 10 = 210 in your head. Many basic arithmetic calculations can be simplified this way (including subtracting and dividing), and done more quickly and easily in your head than by writing them down and following the standard algorithmic approach, or even using a calculator.

Make Things Easier, Not Harder

You can’t blame math teachers for wanting to dazzle and stun their students by making things look more complicated than they are, but everything in math is actually simple if presented in the right way. Different students will take better to different explanations, but because math is based on logic, there is nothing about it that is not self evident if viewed from the right perspective.

Be Like Socrates

In fact, because math is so internally consistent, it is the ideal arena to apply the Socratic method. When I tutor clients in math, I do my best to avoid ever telling them anything, but rather lead them through the process of discovery by asking them the right questions at the right times in the right way to allow them to arrive at conclusions themselves. What I am teaching them is not a set of facts, but rather a method of directing their thinking in productive ways, so that eventually they come to be able to automatically ask themselves the right sorts of questions in a variety of situations.

Follow Interest, Not A Curriculum

The prerequisite for any type of learning is a thirst for knowledge, which can only come from creating and pursuing questions a student is actually interested in, and it just might not line up exactly with any pre-determined curriculum – in fact, it probably won’t. Learning does not take place on a pre-set schedule, but then neither does life. By identifying and supporting the interests of students, instead of trying to standardize them, we empower them to develop their own greatest strengths, which are, of course, unique – and thank goodness for it.

Nurture The Joy Of Discovery

There is a widespread myth that kids have to be forced to learn, but it’s simply not true; kids are, in fact, eager to learn, just not necessarily whatever happens to be put in front of them. Often in math we focus on teaching certain techniques to the exclusion of all of the interesting diversions that appear at every turn. The irony is that all we really have to do is nurture the joy of discovery, and kids will discover more for themselves than we could ever teach them. By allowing kids to ask and answer the questions that are important, meaningful, or just plain interesting to them, we empower them with the ability and the confidence to develop their own gifts, which is what will actually enable them to lead happy, meaningful, and fulfilling lives.