[Edu-sig] Summarizing some threads (KIrby again)...

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Sat Oct 24 20:15:47 CEST 2009

On Fri, Oct 23, 2009 at 10:51 PM, Laura Creighton <lac at openend.se> wrote:
> A problem arises when one has to learn new material.  For many of us,
> actually writing the material down makes us retain it better.  And for
> me, at any rate, writing it down in longhand works better for the
> memorisation of facts than typing things in.

When still in Manila at International School, I enrolled in Evelyn
Wood Reading Dynamics class.

We were taught some techniques I was skeptical about, but practiced
anyway (this was costing my parents some money).

One such technique (which I immediately saw the point of), was
regarding reading technical literature (such as computer science
books):  study any pictures, diagrams, charts, ahead of reading the
article or chapter so that when you're reading, you don't have to
break off when the text mentions said figures, as you already have
some sense of them.

Another technique was to immediately do a "closed book recall" after
reading i.e. write something to summarize the content.  We were
encouraged to diagram our recalls i.e. lots of nodes and edges,
circled and boxed concepts, connecting lines -- many examples were
given in the course of the training.

Students often don't get enough constructive coaching in learning how
to learn.

They get to college and maybe just resort to imitating what others are
doing e.g. put a tiny tape recorder on the lecturer's desk thinking
"why try to transcribe in my notebook if I can get a complete audio
recording?"  From there it's a short hop to "why even go to class if I
can hear the tape later and maybe download the slides from a web

But is that the right question to be asking in the first place?  How
is an audio tape going to solve the "in one ear, out the other"
problem for you, if that's the problem you're having?

I really enjoy a good lecture and like to sit mesmerized, without
taking any notes.

In many geek conferences, the attendees in a presentation are sampling
a technical topic (e.g. Xul or AJAX) that's not necessarily their cup
of tea and they want to "half listen" in the sense of "get the
flavor".  Everyone has a lap top and many gaze into their screens as
the presentation unfolds, not taking notes but doing other things.

We accept this from adults (they have this freedom, are present
voluntarily), but the stereotypical teacher is typically asking for
"your undivided attention" (a common phrase).  We've all seen the
movie where the teacher discovers Johnny is doodling and holds up the
paper for classroom ridicule.  Of course that might be considered
highly unprofessional by today's standards, but that doesn't change
the past.

Constructivism was/is in large degree about developing a more
student-centric model of learning that demanded more active
participation from students, less passive listening and regurgitating
of stuff memorized just long enough to pass a test, then forgotten.

Computer programming is a constructive activity and many students
appreciate the impartial and immediate feedback of the Python
interpreter, which gives error messages, raises exceptions, without
any sense of a personal judgment.

Teachers are often unable to keep a tone of impatience out of their
voice in response to some questions, so you often get that
stereotypical classroom with "star students" asking the "right
questions" and/or giving the "right answers" with a marginalized pool
afraid to "sound stupid" in front of their peers.

> I wish I knews of studies of retention like that.  I'd really like to
> know why it is that this is so, in order that we can make sure we do
> not cheat our students of the tools they need to learn things.  It is
> complicated by the fact that people differ in this matter, from the
> people with eidic or near eidic memories, who don't understand why
> people need tricks to learn how to memorise things, to people who can
> remember things that they read easier than things that they wrote, to
> people who can remember neither of those well, but do remember the
> spoken voice well.  Why are we like this?  Has anybody figured this
> out yet?
> Laura

We're probably a long way from having an authoritative brain science
on this, plus many would turn to psychology.

The explanations will differ as well, e.g. so-and-so has a problem
with lectures because so-and-so had a strict father and is angry
against authority figures, so tunes out, insists on daydreaming and
clinging to a personal train of thought as an act of defiance against
perceived oppression.

Someone else has a problem with lectures because they have an
undiagnosed hearing problem or is chronically malnourished.  Many a
teenager is up late watching TV or playing multi-user games over the
Internet, comes to school groggy, half asleep.

Many high school teachers have become truly accomplished thespians in
their desire to win the undivided attention of their kids.  One of my
daughter's teachers gesticulates wildly, inadvertently gave a kid a
bloody nose the other day when making a dramatic hand gesture.

Many have resorted to techniques of stern intimidation.  The classroom
is less about curriculum content than power politics or class issues
under the surface.

Even if someone loves the lecture format, that may not be the best way
to learn the subject.  The experimental sciences have led the charge
in constructivist circles (ala Karplus et al) given lab work is not
just about developing one's passive listening skills.

My overall impression is constructivism has had more success in
science teaching circles than math teaching.[0]

My own journey:  I was a full time high school math teacher for two
years in the 1980s.  I've also worked in text book publishing
(McGraw-Hill).  Since I've started frequenting geek conferences, I've
been more interested in taking what I've seen in that subculture and
adapting it for classroom situations, e.g. the idea of a lightning
talk (similar to the older idea of "show and tell").

I've continued sporadic teaching of high school aged students via
Portland's Saturday Academy though am currently not doing that.  I
volunteer with a lobby that wants to converge computers and
mathematics more successfully and that is working on fine tuning the

Back to Python and polyhedra:  I think it's the feedback cycle that's
important, closing the gap between "things I do as a student" and
"changes I see in my environment".

So like with Python or POV-Ray code, we'll pull up an already written
script that already does something cool, then look for ways to simply
tweak the code slightly, to get an almost immediate change.  Color and
camera angle come to mind, as obvious places to start.


[0] http://coffeeshopsnet.blogspot.com/2009/02/about-constructivism.html

[1] http://worldgame.blogspot.com/2009/08/education-planning.html

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