What you teach only matters if they remember it …

 

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RealSchooling and the Homeschool Nation Podcast exist for many reasons. Chief among these reasons are, firstly, to enhance the benefits of the limited time we have to educate our children and, secondly, to make life a little easier for all involved. Few things aid both of these missions as effectively as giving teacher and student alike the tools for retaining information and knowledge. Retention is different than knowledge. For example, as you read the first paragraph, you understood every word. Yet, if I asked you to rewrite the words that you’ve just read, verbatim, I doubt that you’d do very well (I wrote them, and I don’t think that I’d do very well)! That’s because, while you had knowledge of the words, your brain didn’t have any reason to think it was important to memorize them. Even if you did have a reason to memorize them, without knowing what tools would allow your brain to succeed would be like expecting someone to solve “3×3= (?),” without ever having introduced them to the concept of multiplication; it’s just not going to happen.

So, how do we teach for retention? The process, discovered over a hundred years ago (and effectively proven, and reproduced, in subsequent research), is called spaced repetition, spaced learning, or the spacing effect, and, if you want the extremely detailed explanation, you can read about it here. If you’re just interested in actually applying it, then read on.

Some of it is very obvious, and only seems to be forgotten when placed into the context of education, ironically. People have short attention spans. The less interested we are in the topic, the shorter our attention span. So, new material should be taught in 15-30 minute bursts. 45-60 minutes later, that material should be reviewed with a short quiz (3-5 questions will usually do the job). A 5 minute review that evening would be a serious bonus – especially if it is in the form of the student explaining the content to another family member (ideally, the non-homeschooling parent). The following day or two present an opportunity for the student to teach the information to the teacher. The more thoroughly the student can explain, the deeper their understanding of the subject actually is. Then, the material is reviewed every other day, then weekly, then monthly, and so on. As the student demonstrates retention, less and less time need be spent reviewing the material.

The following bullet points are taken from the linked article, on the brilliant, Farnham Street Blog, found at FS.blog:

  • A schedule for review of information. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.
  • A means of storing and organizing information. Flashcards or spaced repetition software (such as Anki and SuperMemo) are the most common options. Software has the obvious advantage of requiring little effort to maintain, and of having an inbuilt repetition schedule. Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing information out on flashcards contributes to the learning process.
  • A metric for tracking progress. Spaced repetition systems work best if they include built-in positive reinforcement. This is why learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise incorporate a points system, daily goals, leaderboards and so on. Tracking progress gives us a sense of progression and improvement.
  • A set duration for review sessions. If we practice for too long, our attention wanes and we retain decreasing amounts of information. Likewise, a session needs to be long enough to ensure focused immersion. A typical recommendation is no more than 30 minutes (for older students – less time should be taken for elementary school students, in particular), with a break before any other review sessions.

For further insights on memory and forgetting, see the forgetting curve and Hermann Ebbinghaus.

The Best And Worst Things To Tell Your Kid When Discussing Careers…

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When I was a kid, my parents told me that I “could be anything that I wanted to be when I grew up, as long as I put my mind to it,” and they meant it. They fully believed that, if I tried my best, I could accomplish anything. As I’ve grown up, I’ve discovered that most of my friends were given the same advice. Here’s the thing… there are some serious problems with that advice. It’s time to roll out “you can be anything you want to be, as long as you put your mind to it, version 2.0.”

First, the deficiencies in the original advice:

  1. It isn’t exactly true. If you are Stephen Hawking, it probably doesn’t matter how much effort you put into practicing, you’re not going to become the world’s best opera singer. People have limitations. This doesn’t mean that you should discourage your kids from working towards something, just because you can’t see their talent. All it means is that you need to mentally prepare them for success and failure – they will surely meet both in their lives.
  2. It doesn’t actually help them accomplish anything. It just places the blame on them if they don’t accomplish their goals – because failure can only mean that they didn’t put their mind to it, or try hard enough. It encourages doubling-down, instead of teaching them how to know when to cut their losses, and at the same time, manages to provide absolutely zero guidance in the child’s quest to accomplish their goals.
  3. It encourages the child to fixate on the things that presently interest them, while turning a deliberately blind eye on everything else, resulting in many missed opportunities.
  4. You probably still don’t know what you want to be, because none of the careers that you have imagined are likely to be anything like you imagine them to be. So, this is a condition even more exacerbated by the inexperienced nature of youth. Your kid (probably) doesn’t have a blessed clue what they actually want to be when they grow up, unless you have put a great deal of time into helping them understand the realities (good and bad) of many different career options.

How do we improve upon this advice?

  1. We take an active role in helping our kid(s) figure out what they enjoy, where their talents and skills are, and the ways in which they can employ all three, in their pursuit of a career.
  2. Try to identify the paths that lead to the career that might interest them, and guide them accordingly.
  3. Don’t get frustrated with them when they change their mind a thousand times – because everything that we learn along the way is a benefit to us.
  4. Help them understand that nothing is perfect – and that includes their dream job. We need to help kids see the reality of a number of different careers and help them understand what each will require. It isn’t that we should be telling them how awful what they want to do is, but rather, giving them an objective list of pros and cons and helping them to decide what they really want out of life.
  5. In terms of that last one… you cannot pick a career and pretend that it exists in a vacuum, and that it won’t deeply affect the rest of your life. Some people live to work, and some work to live. If you haven’t helped your child figure out what their priorities are in life, then there is very little chance that your efforts at helping them pick a career are of significant value. You cannot have a one hundred hour a week job, carry a mortgage on a mansion, drive a Mercedes, spend time with your spouse, have a meaningful relationship with your kids, and maintain close friendships. The idea of “having it all,” is a myth. Steve Jobs spent his final days developing Apple’s product line for the years following his death. He did not choose to spend those days with his wife or child. No part of me finds that relatable. So, if I try to shove little Stevie Jobs in the direction that makes sense to me, he isn’t going to end up being where he wants to be –  and if we don’t give our kids any guidance at all, then we are on the wrong end of the old adage: “failing to plan, is planning to fail,” on behalf of some of the most important people in our lives.

Bonus Tip: When I was in middle school and high school, everyone that you ever met was telling you that if you wanted to be sure to land a job out of college (because, duh… you’re going to college, dumbhead), you should become a teacher. You know what the most common course of study I heard friends say they were pursuing? You guessed it: teacher! You know who struggled for years to get jobs? You guessed it again! All of those new prospective teachers. So, when you hear everyone tell you that you should have your middle/high schooler become a [insert career here], because there’s not enough people to fill those jobs, thank them for their advice, spin your kid 180 degrees away from that option, and give them a good shove forward… unless, of course, the flavor of the decade also happens to be their passion. There have been plenty of artists that were willing to starve – and some teachers, and my guess is, there will be some tradespeople in the coming years that fit that description. Just make sure that it is their passion driving them towards the flavor of the day and not the echoing of society’s conventional wisdom – because that is hardly ever right.

Would You Have Solved This Social Media Mystery? So Far, I Was The Only One.

“do you really want to know?” I responded, truthfully, “No one’s ever asked me that before! The answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.”

Don’t be a sucker…

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The other day, I saw an amazing quote on a friend’s social media page by an ancient Greek philosopher. Whenever I see a quote that I either love, or hate, I do what everyone does – I check to see if it’s legit. You totally do that, too, right? Never mind, back to my story… So, I start looking for quotes from this ancient Greek philosopher and, not only can I not find any quotes from him, I can’t find him, anywhere. Now the guy that shared this quote is very smart and has written his fair share of research papers. I deeply doubted that he would be unaware of the fact that (SPOILER ALERT) most of the quotes strewn across the internet are completely unrelated to the person to whom they are attributed. On the other hand, that left me with only two possibilities: 1) He shared this quote from his cell phone and it autocorrected to some truly bizarre word that rendered finding the actual author of the quote completely impossible; or, 2) GASSSSPPPP – he’s the ancient Greek Philosopher! I sent him a message later that day, out of a desperate need to know the answer, because, that’s who you’re dealing with here, folks. I couldn’t let it go. I needed to know the truth! “Hey, buddy!” I said, casually… “I was just wondering about the origin of that awesome quote you shared earlier. I couldn’t find the author anywhere.” I see the typing bubbles… He asks, “do you really want to know?” I responded, truthfully, “No one’s ever asked me that before! The answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.” Before he could respond, I hammered out the words required to indicate that I believed it was him. He confirmed my suspicions. He theorized that people would become more engaged in a cool quote written by someone famous – or famous sounding, then they would in a great quote by himself, so, he created someone famous sounding. In fact, over roughly two years, he’d used the ancient pen name more than half a dozen times, to increased engagement, without anyone ever calling him on it. No one knows that this ancient philosopher, whose quotes they are sharing isn’t real – or at least isn’t ancient. Or Greek… No one, that is, except for me.

I want to make an important point here: I fact checked my friend’s quote, even though I believe him to be the type of guy who is unlikely to quote something that was not verified; the type of guy that doesn’t share news stories which are easily debunked. Why? Because I fact check everyone. I fact check my own writing, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, or lean too heavily on something lacking the appropriate amount of credible support. I don’t place blind trust in anyone, because everyone makes mistakes.

I didn’t always do this. Actually, I started when I was looking to see where one of my favorite quotes came from, only to find that it didn’t exactly come from anywhere. Do you want to know which quote I was looking for? Brace yourself. You’re not going to like this. What if I told you that Einstein never said the “fish quote?” You know, the one where the fish spends its whole life feeling stupid if you tell it that it has to climb a tree, or whatever… I’m not going to bother quoting it perfectly – because Einstein never said it! Someone did say something like it, though. That guy actually wrote a great piece on education and Einstein gets the credit – c’mon people! Didn’t Einstein get enough credit for things that he actually did?! Do we really need to give him some other guy’s credit, too?

Once I discovered that Einstein was reaching out from beyond the grave to use the internet to steal credit for other people’s quotes, I became suspicious of other quotes. It turns out they’re all fake. FAKE. Ok, maybe not all. But, your favorite internet quote? FAKE. If not fake, then, misattributed, which is even more messed up, in some ways (because if the person that actually said it can be identified, shouldn’t they get the credit?).

Okay, but really, who cares that they are fake?

Why does it matter? For so many reasons. First, because we give more weight of credibility to the words of well-respected people. It means more to us if we have Einstein, Plato, Jesus, Michael Jordan, or Mr. Rogers on our side of an argument – subject to the topic, of course; I’m going to Jordan for basketball pointers, not Plato – but, I digress. More importantly, it reveals how bad we are at identifying what is real and what is a fraud. It runs the gamut, from the brief quote, to the social and political articles that proliferate social media.

I suppose it makes sense. The basis of K-12 education is, “I teach you the answer, you reproduce the answer on the exam.” There isn’t much critical analysis, there (note: that isn’t a dig on teachers. They are handcuffed by the system – any decent teacher will readily tell you how frustrating that is). You can tell me that it isn’t really like that, however, I went to law school – I sat in a room full of highly educated people as they struggled desperately to grasp the concept that there wasn’t necessarily a “correct answer.” There were different possibilities; different potential outcomes. They had spent seventeen years of schooling getting straight A’s, because they learned how to remember and reproduce an answer. So, when we leave the classroom, we have been trained to listen to an answer and accept it as truth – at face value. This doesn’t work – in the classroom or in the real world. If we don’t learn how to question, and fact check, we will always play the role of the useful idiot; the tool that someone uses to get a vote or sell a product (or news channel – you pick, Fox, CNN, MSNBC… they’re all selling you the opinion they think you want to hear).

I’m trying to protect your credibility, here. If you can’t at least sort the real from the easily refutable, then you will lack credibility with anyone alert enough to distinguish between the two. Even worse, is when someone – like one of your kids, places a great deal of faith in your words, and believes them, almost, blindly. This person may be devastated when they discover that too much of what they learned from you was based on urban legends, and misinformation.

This whole thing should make you ask yourself how many things you’ve read and just chosen to accept as true. It presents some major issues when we consider our ideological, political, philosophical, and theological beliefs. In the end, it all comes back to my friends question: “do you really want to know?” For me, the answer is yes; always, and unequivocally, yes.

Jeffrey Hoffmann is the founder of RealSchooling.com, Real Schooling.blog, and is a practicing attorney.

Communication Skills: (Defining)Words Matter(s).

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Okay, I know that you may already know this, but, it needs to be said: words matter. I don’t mean in the sense that “words can hurt our feelings,” or in terms of the inherent power of the spoken, or written, word – although, those are true statements. I’m talking about the meaning of the word that you’ve chosen to use – and the significance of making sure that the person with whom you are communicating understands the meaning of the word that you’re using – as you are defining it.

If that entire concept sounds like semantics, that’s because it is. The word semantics is defined as “the meaning of a word.” We’ve been very misguided in our dismissal of the significance of this task – and recently, a great example presented itself. You may have heard, recently, that scientists discovered a new organ! For now, I’ll ignore the fact that we still understand so very little of our bodies, earth, solar system, universe, etc., that there was an “organ,” that is so pervasive that it exists in a significant portion of the human body (a post for another day, I suppose). Let’s just focus on the fact that it might not actually be an organ (hence the quotation marks around the word organ, above).  You see, the thing is, “no two anatomists will agree on a list of organs in the body,” according to Paul Neumann, a professor of medicine at Dalhousie University in Canada and member of the  Federative International Programme for Anatomical Terminology. If you’re anything like me, you respond to that statement with incredulity and a solid, “beg your pardon,” or even a disbelieving, “come again. now?” How is it possible that anatomists cannot agree on how many organs are in the human body – a number which is debatably as high as 79 or 80 (yes, you read that right – they contend that there are as many as 79 or 80 organs in the human body)? Well, the answer to that is the easiest part of this story to explain. They can’t agree on the number of organs, because there is no agreed upon definition for the word “organ,” except in terms of the musical instrument.

The real kicker is that it doesn’t actually matter whether you call it an organ or not. Are your organs the most important part of your body? That depends on who you ask as well. To the person that has failing organs, I suppose they’d answer, “yes.” However, to the person battling an autoimmune disease that causes their white blood cells to attack their platelets (a condition called “I.T.P.”), the fact that neither the white blood cells, nor the platelets are defined as “organs,” is of no consequence at all. Therefore, the new discovery of some aspect of our human anatomy is significant, irrespective of the label given to that discovery.

You might think, well, that’s all great, but, I don’t discover organs, so why are you bothering me? You’re obviously right: you don’t discover organs. On the other hand, your work is significantly more important than discovering organs. You’re educating someone that has the chance to be taught the lessons that are completely missed in the traditional educational setting. Someone who will soon go out into the world – and, by virtue of the fact that you educated them, and are the type of person that is still reading this blog post, they will likely be the sort of person that succeeds and has a significant impact on the world around them.  Someone that has the ability to be the voice of reason in a society that has forgotten – or in some cases, never learned, how to reason. Our social and political divisions come down to a handful of ideological differences. However, the chasm that most of society has come to believe exist between ourselves and those that possess opinions which differ from our own, is related to an even smaller number of root causes. Among them, the failure to define our words, and the failure to define the meaning of someone else’s words.

Aside from being able to communicate better with everyone around us, the decision to carefully and deliberately define our words has the potential to determine whether our kids end up learning the lessons that we are trying to teach them, or, end up heeding the advice that they mistakenly believe that we were trying to give them, only to end up way off the mark, and incredibly frustrated.

Jeffrey Hoffmann, Esq., Founder – RealSchooling.com & RealSchooling.blog