Category Archives: Learning


Years ago, with the state in the midst of what was then the latest education crisis, California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown convened a big-deal “Education Summit.” he invited scores of experts from all over the country (off the top of my head, I most remember Marian Wright Edelman and Robert Reich, who was still Clinton’s Labor Secretary) and representatives of every group concerned even the slightest with education: teachers, school boards, unions, private and parochial school administrators, parents, employers, financing experts, even a few cognitive scientists. (I attended as a representative of the HomeSchool Association of California.)

Essentially a giant photo op, there were lots of lights and cameras and reporters, corporate-sponsored lunches and gift bags, and three solid days of talking and talking and talking . . . . But what I remember most is that, among the more than 1,000 people gathered, aside from the student member of the state board of education, and the representatives of the high school student body president association and the college student body president association, there were no other students of any age there–no representatives of the people to whom all this effort and concern was ostensibly aimed.

So nearly two decades later, I can’t say I’m surprised at any surprise at this:

What Works in the Classroom? Ask the Students

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Filed under Just Because, Learning, Miscellaneous ranting

It’s complicated . . . and all the better for it

I’m struck yet again by what seems to be a unifying theme running through what I thought were disparate areas of my life. Once upon a time, I’d have told you that streamlining and simplifying things to focus on one concept at a time was a good idea, but these days, I’m seriously into complexity.

  • Nutritionally, it’s better to eat a variety of real (that is, fresh) food than to rely on multivitamins and other supplements.
  • Sure, there are all those high-tech exercise machines that isolate specific muscles, but if I want a challenging workout, point me toward the free weights or the balance balls or the yoga mat. Complex exercises work not only the body but the brain, and are interesting enough to keep me coming back for more.
  • Learning by doing almost always seems to work better than learning by rote. No matter how carefully I read a software user manual, I never learn as much about how to use the application as when I simply sit down and start using it by trial and error (and only occasional recourse to the manual as reference).

I’ve thought for years now that starting with the basics is not always the best idea. Sometimes jumping into the midst of something (fencing or teaching, for example) to get a good taste can tell you what you still need to learn, and let you focus better on learning it.

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Filed under Just Because, Learning

As the look and feel change, so do our minds . . .

I’m a text geek. Most of what I do professionally involves text, either writing it or making it more appealing to read. I think in text, to the extent that (as I wrote about in Viral Learning) when I think of the color red, what I see in my mind is not the color itself, but the letters r-e-d (in a serif font, of course).

Every so often, though, something reminds me that the way I look at text has changed considerably over my lifetime. Consider the page spread here, which I shot from the 1954 Britannica Book of the Year my brother sent me for my birthday last year (because it covers the events of 1953, the year I was born).

what spiffy text used to look like

Once upon a time, this was bright and appealing page design, at least for publications as dignified as Britannica. When I received this volume last summer, I was shocked at how the pages looked–when we were kids, my brother and I used to love looking at these yearbooks partly because they had photos and looked far more interesting than the regular encyclopedia volumes.

As an adult, I find these pages unappealing—they’re a slog to read through, and not just because of the tiny print demanding too much of my presbyopic eyes. The margins are too narrow, the blocks of texts are too solid, and subheads are virtually nonexistent. I’m far less willing now to scan through the pages looking for the specific information I want.

Why so? I’ve been trained over the past three decades by the changes in the ways information is presented now. The early GUIs, like the first Mac OS, taught us to notice typefaces—sometimes explicitly (most of us quickly learned to avoid ransom note fonts), but more often in ways beyond our conscious notice. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when my parents returned my copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth unread (they’d not wanted to watch the movie because they find his voice annoying), because, as my mom put it, “It’s too dumbed down with all the pictures and big print.” I’d thought the book was an effective conversion of the slideshow, keeping the feel of the original with the charts and photos while adding plenty of additional information (including plenty of text). It would not have occurred to me that the size of the print meant the contents demanded a lower level of cognition. In short, my parents (in their 70s) expect serious nonfiction to look like the Britannica used to. My own expectations are different now.

I demand more now from the nonfiction I read. (With fiction, I’m still perfectly content with page after page of straight text–after all, I’m still into linear stories rather than the graphic novels that appeal to my older daughter these days.) i want good tables of contents and running heads and plenty of subheads to guide me. Modern publishing technology means that adding all those bells and whistles—making texts pretty!—is easy. It’s the effect of using software instead of lead type.

But I’m also reading far more than I read three decades ago. I’m not reading a book or two a week the way I used to—I’m reading books, plus articles from journals I’ve never seen physical copies of, newspapers from other continents, not to mention all the web information sources that don’t even have paper analogues. The volume of material I read is probably several times what it was when I was confined to paper. Without all the assistance from modern design esthetics, I couldn’t get through everything that interests me these days. I’ve learned to sort and judge material in ways I don’t even yet realize.

My brain processes are undoubtedly going through more changes even as I wonder at how they’ve already changed. Take that Pulse Reader on my iPad, for instance. It’s not only a pretty implementation of a news reader, but it lets me view more feeds more quickly than I could with my old RSS readers. (The review has more photos and a video.) In another year, who knows what new apps will be changing the ways I think and work?


Pulse Reader on the iPad

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Filed under Cognition, Learning, Reading, Science & Technology

Not so dumb jocks

Carl Zimmer’s got an interesting article over at Discover: Why Athletes Are Geniuses, about the ways in which highly skilled athletes’ brains differ from those of us ordinary folk.

Interesting stuff, though it’s one of those fields where the general conclusions seem obvious from anecdotal observations. All the years I’ve spent watching my daughters fence have made it utterly obvious that their brains have had to adapt to enable their progress. A beginning fencer is an ungainly mess, trying to pay attention to where her feet are and where they’re facing, to how she’s gripping her saber and which way her wrist is turned, to how her torso is placed, to whether her knees are bent enough, and to how to extend her arm in coordination with the movement of her feet—and oh, crap, the other fencer’s attacking right at me! What do I do now?!!

After ten years of fencing, my daughter doesn’t consciously consider all those details when she competes—her brain has consolidated the minutiae of her movements into large meta-motions, so to speak. She still works in drills and private lessons to keep her brain so well-trained, but she’s more likely to be conscious of something she does wrong than of what she does right.

What’s spooky to me is how much detail she can see when watching others fence. During those ten years she’s fenced, I’ve become a much better fencing spectator. But where I can finally see attacks and parries and beats, she sees that a fencer’s attack missed because the angle of her arm was a couple of degrees off or that a wrist was turned slightly the wrong direction. Because her brain knows what the whole should look like, her focus goes directly to the small details that are different from what they should be.

We spectators mostly have no clue how little we understand of what we see skilled athletes do.

(Oh, and if you want to see an example of that sort of cluelessness, check out this idiotic reaction to Zimmer’s Discover article.)


Filed under Fencing, Learning, Science & Technology