Archive for June, 2010

A while ago, I picked up an old book at a fair. It was a maths textbook, but not just any old maths textbook. The author commented on the fact that maths was being taught in schools and colleges as a paper exercise, not as a living subject. He gave examples of how maths could and should be used – for hobby subjects, for household tasks, in business and industry etc.

Subsequently, I came across an essay called Lockhart’s Lament. The author expressed sorrow at the fact that maths was being taught as a rote subject, rather than teaching people how to be creative and think with the data.

As a creative and whole-part, rather than sequential or bit-and-piece learner, I can relate utterly to the points these authors are making.

The way maths is typically taught in schools usually starts with basic arithmetic and then moves on to more complex topics. It is assumed that one topic will flow logically to another, accuracy and speed at each being demanded before the next topic is introduced.

As a young child, being presented with the subject in a way that was anathema to my creative/visual learning style, I rebelled in a way that could be expected of a person that age: I disengaged from the subject and underachieved. What would have nipped this in the bud would have been if some alert teacher tuned in to the fact that what I needed was the big picture – what were the purposes and goals of this subject called maths? What was its scope, what did it encompass? What else did it do, apart from sums?

Having spent the early years resisting a subject that I regarded as inherently pointless, I started to feel that perhaps I was just no good with numbers. In my opinion, most people in the class seemed to be much better at it than I was, and I felt demotivated and worked very slowly. The teachers, however, continued to beat to death those dreaded sums. How I hated them.

Perhaps because of my lack of confidence at figures, or the fact that I worked so very slowly, particularly in a pressurised situation such as an end of term exam, I simply got dumped by the school in a very low class for maths. We were still grinding away at fractions and decimals right up to the final school term, and never progressed onto the topics, such as geometry or statistics, that I might have found more interesting.

What might have debugged the subject for me at this stage would have been for the teacher to present some of those other maths topics totally regardless of my performance at sums, and wait and see whether these would pique my interest and I would bite. Then, if I saw that weakness at any part of arithmetic was getting in my way, I would have motivation to fix it. Or, knowing the workings of my own mind, it might well have just fixed itself. Give me the core concept, and the details tend to take care of themselves.

No one would think of telling someone who had difficulty with spelling that they couldn’t enjoy stories or poetry until they learned how to spell properly. To do so would probably be one of the most crushingly demotivating things that a teacher could do to a student. Yet this is clearly analogous to the way we are taught maths. Is it any wonder there are so many people who dislike the subject or think they have no aptitude for it?

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Today an email arrived in my inbox offering a free copy of Theron Q. Dumont’s book “The Power of Concentration”. Although it sounded like the type of thing I should like to read at some point, I did not wish to fill out a form with my email address and end up on everybody’s spam list.

Knowing that these freebies are open-source, I figured it could be found on the Web, and I found it on the Gutenberg publications download site. This site has a catalogue of free books on the mind, brain and spirit and so I thought I would link to the list of books in that category, since much of it looks quite relevant to the general theme of this blog:


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AtlantIQ Society

I ran across this group a few days ago, and I was very impressed with their objectives in supporting UNICEF and campaigning to help raise awareness of the need to provide an appropriate education for the very brightest schoolchildren. I decided to submit my application in support of those goals, and also because I am interested in both the arts and the sciences, and in challenging myself intellectually.

The Society’s founders are Italian but the membership is international. Beatrice, the owner of the site, answered my enquiry very quickly and made me feel welcome straight away. There is a small but relatively active membership, and my feeling from the forum posts was that there was an atmosphere of friendship and lively discussion.

Here is their website: http://www.atlantiqsociety.com/

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Note-Taking and Study

When I was in Primary school, watching the BBC schools programmes was an established part of the curriculum, and I remember the entire school year filing into a classroom or the library to watch whichever educational programme had been selected by the teachers.

To my surprise, one day, a stand-in teacher (not our regular class teacher) gave out pieces of paper to each student before we lined up to walk to the TV room, saying that these pieces of paper were so that we could make notes.

Before I realised it, the TV show had finished, and I hadn’t written a single word on my piece of paper. The idea of summarising key points or key words as the TV show progressed was an entirely new thing to me, and without any time to consider the matter beforehand and think how I was going to approach this completely novel request, I simply didn’t know what to write.

Many years later, after extensive training on very precise technology and methodologies on study and learning, I realised exactly what had happened.

Note-taking requires judgement – the student has to be able to decide quickly which facts are key data and which are less important. When the person already has a certain amount of familiarity with the subject area, this may not be too difficult.

When a person is less familiar with the subject material being presented (I believe the programme was about Greek or Roman mythology, of which I had zero prior knowledge), he or she may be less able to determine the relative importances of the facts being presented to him or her. The student just isn’t sufficiently au fait with the material to make that judgement call.  Understanding has to be present before judgement can occur.

Unfortunately for the student, that presents a problem. How does one summarise a lecture, for instance, when the entire subject is new, and one hasn’t yet the luxury of that necessary level of understanding?

It never sat well with me when I read in one of Tony Buzan’s study guides that a study had shown that key words written down by the student was the most effective note-taking, while a full lecture transcript given out by the teacher was the worst. I can only conclude that the participants in the study were already very familiar with the subject area. It may be that some kind of inverse ratio operates, i.e. already very knowledgeable attendees get the most out of making their own key notes, whereas very unfamiliar students would benefit from much more complete course notes.

My experience of running courses is that students miss bits. I would never, ever rely upon a student to take complete notes, especially when new to the subject. Nomenclature gets missed, people fog out, lose concentration etc. What vital information could the lecturer or teacher be presenting while the student has dropped his book, starts thinking about something else, or whatever?

Most of the courses I ran had complete, verbatim transcripts, and for good reason. It made a much easier task of tracking down what the student had missed, didn’t grasp, etc.

It is a pity that Buzan and other study guide authors never point out that people approach a subject from a very wide spectrum of prior knowledge and study abilities, and tailor their books accordingly. It is my opinion as an experienced course supervisor and study debug specialist that nearly all such books are written for highly literate, well-educated students, rather than the very people who need to learn some real study skills.

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I stayed the weekend at my parents’ house, primarily so that I could attend the local veteran vehicle pageant, which has miles of bric-a-brac stalls and is always a great day or two out. I spent about a day and a half looking around the pageant, and the rest of the time in my old room, catching up on various things.
I realised I haven’t had so much time to think in absolutely ages. To be free of enforced conversation, and just have the opportunity to walk up and down looking at the exhibits and enjoying my own space was bliss.
Alone in my room, I found I got more done than I probably have for months. I caught up on a number of projects, and…guess what…I actually read a book from start to finish without having to put it aside to finish another day. I find that when I can read an entire publication like that, the likelihood of enjoying and absorbing the content is much greater than when I am forced to snatch a few pages’ worth in between interruptions. And of course there is an immense satisfaction in being able to cross off vast numbers of items on my “To Do” list in one day.
I estimate it takes about three days of such solitary decompression for true creative urges to start resurfacing. During the usual course of a busy lifestyle, they simply get suppressed, because there isn’t the time or the freedom to act on them. I started to think of all sorts of new things that I should like to do and work on, but uh-oh, my three day vacation is up.
I am aware that I have probably had to try extra hard not to be grouchy and snappy this week, because just as the creativity started bubbling to the surface, I had to go back to normal life. And to cap it all, it’s been an extra specially demanding week, not least because of an office relocation.
Just as we read yet another news article where a psycho goes on a shooting spree and gets reported in the newspapers as “a loner”, I again wonder whether I am the only “loner” on Planet Earth who actually needs solitude as a catalyst for creativity, rather than having my head twisted out of shape by it.
Or perhaps true creative individuals just need long stretches of uninterrupted percolation time for the ideas to surface, and then even longer stretches of uninterrupted time to bring those ideas to realisation.
I have no sympathy with persons, organisations, companies etc. who want creative solutions, but equally do not provide any private space where individuals can come up with them. Instead we get endless “brainstorming” meetings, and so on.  Have any truly creative ideas been produced by (a) a group; (b) an individual when surrounded and constantly interrupted by other people? Indeed, is there such a thing as a creative extrovert?
(By the way, I’m not at all worried about whether I’m upsetting any extroverts (Homo Interruptus – as I shall refer to them from hereon) here.  My comments are mild compared to what I have had to listen to my whole life.)
Anyway, the thrust of the message is – if you want me to produce, I need my headspace.  That is non-negotiable. And if that makes me unsociable, well, what is more important: being everybody’s friend, or actually getting something done in life?

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