“We do hard things”

This morning at the breakfast table, my eldest daughter “needed” help with her food. We helped her get started, but for finishing the challenging task of stirring her oatmeal, her mom encouraged her: “We do hard things.”

Without premeditation, we’ve started using this phrase recently in our family. It may not be as hardcore as Sara Blakely’s “What did you fail at today?” question, but it’s a lovely phrase. It encourages a growth mindset: “hard” is good, not bad. It makes it a part of our daughters’ identity, much like saying “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” re-wires the brain to help with goals. And it builds a shared identity–we, the Iwashige family, do hard things!

Project Euler: Programming skills through play

I recently learned about Project Euler, and have found it addictive. It’s a wonderful site for learning programming. It’s not powerful tools that make it great. The site’s design looks ancient; it has no programming editors; it doesn’t even have any tutorials. But it has wonder, and a series of progressively harder challenges, and lets you discover what you need to learn in order to solve those challenges. Basically, it’s a site to support exploratory learning–learning of the sort that happens when you start a new job, a new business, or a new hobby. Learning of the kind that delights when you figure out the problem, learning that sticks. Learning that happens when you dive in, get your hands dirty, and learn what you need to know along the way.

James Somers wrote a good article about Project Euler at The Atlantic. I’m still in the first dozen or so problems out of over 500, but if you want to follow my progress, my profile is here and my friend key is 858072_k8PHIvJ2fpmYfHwCObWWZ59Ql4jckfYS.

The use of incoherent fragments

When I started this blog, it was a tentative thing–a platform whose significance I downplayed, but one through which I secretly hoped I’d accomplish something world-changing. I didn’t know what, but after all…who really needs just another “data dump” made public? I wanted to write valuable things, important things, things that earned respect.

Writing content that’s worth reading is a great idea. Unfortunately, this idea has translated into my writing very little. At the same time, I’ve gained appreciation for “simmers” of ideas: experiences like watching a dozen TED talks at a time, reading Alex Steffens’s Worldchanging book, or reading half a dozen books on related topics in a weekend. In this simmer, ideas collide, interact, and combine in wonderful ways. Ideas don’t need to be long; they don’t need to be fully developed to be useful. They just need to interact productively with other ideas. A tornado of index cards might have more value than a well-organized essay–even though the former looks like chaos, and is unlikely to win any literary prizes.

So…I’m going back to the origin of “blogging”. “Blog”, of course, is a contraction of “weblog”–in my interpretation, a stream of brief thoughts released to the Web. It may be that something grand emerges, but I’m not planning on it. What I am planning is that I’ll once again write to help order my understanding of the world. And sometimes, I’ll just share with little comment the small, delightful morsels that I’ve found on my experiential plate.

Make It Stick: Test to learn

This post is one of an (intended) collection interacting with the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. All in the collection are linked from the Introduction post.

[Edited to add, a few days after initial post: this New York Times article is an interesting read on the subject.]

Test…to learn?

First–please forget about standardized testing and “teaching to the test”. That’s a discussion mostly unrelated to “testing to learn”.

The authors of Make It Stick tell the story of a group of university employees challenged to give the locations of the fire extinguishers closest to their offices. Few could do so, but one professor–who’d worked there for 25 years–looked for the one closest to his office. He found it–right next to his office door.

Many are the times that I’ve listened to a good lecture or a good sermon, and an hour later remembered that it was especially insightful or interesting–but would have been hard pressed to tell you even the main points of the presentation. Ditto for any number of wonderful books I’ve read.

So…what’s up? Why can’t I remember what I’ve read or heard, and why can’t a university professor remember the fire extinguisher right next to his office door?

Perhaps it would help to listen to the lecture again, or read the book again–but it probably won’t help a lot. What will help, according to the evidence, is testing–or, if that term makes your skin crawl, “active recall”. When you’re forced to produce, or even to simply recall an answer, its “stickiness” in your long-term memory goes way up. The authors of Make It Stick cite one study of people asked to memorize random lists, to be tested a week later. Everyone immediately forgot about half of the list–not too bad, for a large, random list. But those who were tested immediately after seeing the lists did substantially better a week later than those who weren’t, a benefit that came through the simple act of actively recalling the information.

Even more interesting was what happened when people were tested several times immediately after initially learning the list. The result: after the initial drop-off, the repeatedly tested group forgot basically nothing more in the intervening week. Their never-tested counterparts, in the same time period, lost substantially more.

Perhaps more interesting than random lists were the stories of “testing to learn” in actual classroom settings. The upshot: it’s quite effective in that setting, supported both by controlled studies and anecdotal evidence.

The thing is, the act of remembering something is not just pulling a file out of your mental archives. Instead, when you recall knowledge or a skill, it’s as though you walked through your personal library, asked several people where the desired information might be, and finally found the file you were looking for. After finding it, reading it, and adding some new notes, you re-file the document in a slightly more prominent spot, making a mental note of where you can find the information the next time you want it. The simple act of recalling something tells your brain that it’s important, and should be retained and made as accessible as possible.

Besides strengthening what you already know, testing your knowledge is a great way to figure out what you don’t know, and to work on learning/re-learning them.

Competitors of “test to learn”

“Test to learn” does have a few competitors in the learning-techniques arena–competitors, at least, in their popularity. In effectiveness, there’s little contest. Perhaps you’ve tried some of them. One is frequent re-reading–perhaps with the aid of a highlighter, so that you can read only the important points. Another is “massed practice”, focused review on one narrow skill or set of facts. In brief: though a quick re-read after some time might be a helpful warm-up, but evidence shows that re-reading is unlikely to offer much benefit in long-term retention. Massed practice, which we’ll visit in more depth in another post, shows great short-term benefits, but those benefits quickly fade into oblivion.

I find analogies helpful here: “test to learn” is like an apprenticeship, offering lots of uncomfortable challenge but resulting in lifelong skill. Massed practice is like the “weekend warrior” approach to working out: it feels like an accomplishment, but doesn’t add a lot of value over the long term. And re-reading is like some of my magazine subscriptions used to be: magazines showed up at my door frequently, I sometimes actually read them, and those I did read seldom provided any lasting value. And so, despite my extensive exposure to magazines related to science and finance, I somehow managed to avoid developing exceptional genius in either field!

Making it practical

So…if you’re a learner, what does it mean to “test to learn”? If you’re helping others learn, how might you apply this? It’s worth pausing for a bit to think about this before proceeding. (Another lesson, mostly for another day, taken from Make It Stick.)

A few practical ideas include:

As a learner:

  • As you read, or perhaps after finishing a chapter, write your own quiz. If you’re in a rush, even “writing” (and taking) the quiz in your own mind will be far more helpful than doing nothing. What are the “big ideas” of this text? Are there facts or lines of reasoning that you need to remember?
  • As much as possible, test information in the way you’ll use it. The book offers the vivid example of a police officer who encountered an armed suspect. In a well-practiced maneuver, he broke the other’s hold on his weapon and seized it–then, in equally well-practiced fashion, he handed it back to the suspect, just as he’d done hundreds of times while practicing the maneuver with other officers. Fortunately, he recovered quickly enough to take possession of the weapon again and keep it.
  • If you can and if the information is important to remember, come back in a few days and ask yourself the same questions–an example of spaced repetition, another powerful tool we’ll talk about later.
  • Be a “mean” tester: make yourself work to answer your self-test! Some questions may have simple, factual answers–but as much as possible, lean toward questions that make you apply what you know and integrate it with the rest of your knowledge. The harder you have to work to answer these questions, the more “sticky” the learning will be.
  • As a corollary, don’t be content with answers that you don’t understand. E.g., don’t just cram a math formula into your head by rote, but understand why it it works the way it does.
  • If you’re reading a book with end-of-chapter questions, by all means use them, at least as a starting point!
  • Bonus points if you enter your questions and answers in Anki, Memrise, or another spaced-repetition system and keep on using it, for an ultimate “mind hack” using the powers of both testing and spaced repetition.

As one who helps others learn:

  • Use tests as a teaching tool. This doesn’t rule out tests as an assessment tool, but those are a different game. Take advantage of the power of testing in increasing recall, and save a bit of time for a low-stakes quiz at the end of class.
  • Use spaced repetition along with testing: have people recall last week’s concepts, and those from a few weeks ago.
  • Help learners develop the skills of “testing” themselves.
  • If you’re a classroom teacher, use comprehensive tests (in this case, we’re talking about the tests normally used for “assessment”). Yes, your students might hate you for it. 🙂 But their true learning will go up substantially. Of course, some of the other points mentioned make this much more “doable” than it might otherwise be.

Your thoughts?

  • How important is it to retain what you read or hear?
  • How can you apply the power of testing to help you?
  • If your job is helping others learn, how might you facilitate their learning through testing?
  • What other applications of this idea might there be?
  • …and where might it go wrong?

Make It Stick: What is learning, anyway?

This post is one of an (intended) collection interacting with the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. All in the collection are linked from the Introduction post.

So, I’m thinking and writing about the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The title itself raises one question that’s worth thinking about: what is “learning”? What does it mean to “learn”?

Learning is most effective when it’s effortful, something we’ll examine more closely later. For the moment, though, that has one simple implication: this post will be most useful for you if you stop and think for a bit before continuing. What does it mean to learn? Why would you want to learn?

I thought of several kinds of learning:

  • The learning of a skill: welding, disease diagnosis, software design, coding in C++.
  • The learning of knowledge: the history of the USA, the mechanics of the immune system, the value of pi.

And a few things that don’t feel like they’re “really learning”:

  • Shallow memorization of facts. This is hard to pin down, but a story from my “physical sciences” class might help. In a section on electricity, the assignment was to wire up circuits in various configurations and record the relative brightness of a bulb tied into those circuits. Wanting to save some time (and, probably, being an arrogant kid at the time), I started writing in some of the results before we’d actually gotten around to doing the experiments, astonishing some of the others in my group. I’m guessing we all “knew” the facts about voltage, current, resistance, and brightness, but in that particular case, cocky-kid-Joel had that knowledge more available for use than the others in the group.
  • Extremely short-lived learning. This is the kind of thing you get when you’ve crammed for a test, did well, and lose almost all of it within days. Or, when you get to the end of an enjoyable lecture or sermon and think, “That was really good! But…um…what was it about again?”
  • Although it’s still learning of a sort, “misdirected learning” is another interesting category. Examples include learning how to read a word in another language when your top desire is to produce it (they’re connected, but different skills), or the ability to remember a fact when asked a question phrased “just right”, but not when you want to use it in real life.

Thinking of those examples, it’s interesting to note their interrelationships: skills usually depend on some sort of base of knowledge, and the ability to acquire knowledge is a skill. Shallow memorization, short-lived memory, and misdirected learning form their own constellation of interwoven cause and effect.

And so, here’s my tentative definition of learning. I…um…don’t remember whether the authors of Make It Stick actually define what they mean by “learning”, but I’m guessing their definition would at least be similar to mine.

Learning is the long-lasting acquisition of skills or knowledge, in a form accessible and useful when such skills or knowledge are relevant.

My first draft of this definition specified that the skills or knowledge should “affect the way one thinks or acts”–but that leaves a lot of ambiguity. For example, if you learn pi to a thousand digits, does that make a difference in the way you think or act? If you know that Laika was the first dog in orbit, does that make a difference? Like Scott Young, I actually like “useless” knowledge and believe that a lot of “useless” knowledge is useless only because one hasn’t yet found a use. Digits of pi can be wonderful if you need a quick proxy for random numbers. Laika’s story is one episode in the Space Race story, a part of what’s shaped Russia, America, and the world. The revised definition lets Laika hang out in the back of your mind most of the time, informing your understanding of Russo-American history and waiting to emerge when she’s needed for a Trivial Pursuit question. It lets the digits of pi wait around as static, “useless” but accessible knowledge that you’ve learned. But, if you’ve “learned” the math of voltage and current but can’t predict that a higher voltage will light a bulb more brightly, that knowledge isn’t in a useful form and thus doesn’t count as “learned”.

What do you think–what does it mean to “learn” something? What categories have I missed? Are there times when it’s worthwhile to “learn” something in a way that doesn’t meet my definition?

Make It Stick: Introduction

I recently read the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. I found the book impressive, and it joins the short list of those I’ll too-enthusiastically recommend to anyone who will listen–especially those who are “learners” or “teachers”, groups which should encompass most people.

Make It Stick is a well-woven collection of stories and hard data on what the science actually says about how best to learn.This includes a number of things that run against our intuition, or even standard study advice. A few examples:

  • Always retiring to the same quiet place to study may actually hurt learning.
  • Learning something “easily” probably means you’re going to lose it soon.
  • Repeatedly re-reading a text (or presumably, re-listening to a lecture) is terrible in terms of learning power.
  • Tests are good–at least, if approached in the right way.
  • One of my favorites: spaced repetition is really powerful.
  • Reflection–digesting, re-stating, connecting, and applying “learning” is fairly powerful in facilitating actual learning.

And so…I plan to take the book’s advice to heart and “reflect” in writing on its contents. The benefit is primarily my own: if you wish, you can buy the book, or search for its title and find any number of summaries. I’d encourage doing both. In writing about these ideas, I hope to “learn” them, making them part of my own mental toolkit. If someone else benefits as well, I’m even happier!

For a longer preview of the ideas presented in the book, see this article. And then–start thinking about how to apply the ideas presented, and join me in the conversation!

Posts Inspired by Make It Stick:

Musings on learning Bangla

These days, I’m spending a lot of time studying the Bangla language, also known as Bengali. Bangla is the basis for the country of Bangladesh’s name: Bangla (বাংলা) is the name of the language, and “desh” (দেশ) is Bangla for “country”. Thus, Bangladesh is simply the country of Bangla—an especially meaningful fact given the nation’s bloody transformation from East Pakistan to Bangladesh, in part through the Bengali Language Movement and its emphasis on the Bengali language and culture.

Despite being the sixth-most spoken language in the world, there’s a great dearth of language-learning resources available for Bangla. Pimsleur? Rosetta Stone? Fuhgeddaboudit. That being the case, I thought I’d mention some of the resources and techniques that have been helpful to me or that I plan to use, in the hope that others will find it useful. As background, this comes from someone who studied 10 hours a week for 4 months with a Bangla tutor 5 years ago, but hasn’t done much formal study since. I’m also pursuing the Dhaka dialect of Bangla in preference to the Kolkata dialect. Thus, consider how your situation differs from mine and adapt accordingly.

A great starting point for your journey is the Everyday Language Learner’s site. It’s an excellent blog, and his $20 “guide” is well worth the money. He has an excellent list of blogs and one of “getting started” resources—see especially the “Language Learning Programs” section.

I’d consider the core resources for getting started (if not living in Bangladesh) to be:

  • Complete Bengali: A Teach Yourself Guide, by William Radice
  • The free Anki flash card program, available for most computer and mobile platforms (with synching). Anki 2.0 is currently in beta, but includes a number of substantial improvements. I’ve been using it, and happily recommend starting with that version. The AnkiDroid beta is available here, the Windows version of the beta is here, and the documentation for 2.0 is here. Get at least somewhat familiar with Anki’s features, as you might find them helpful in designing cards that fit your learning style.
  • Input software to enter Bangla. Many in Bangladesh use the Avro phonetic input software. Based in part on advice from a linguist friend, I’m using a re-mapped Bangla keyboard from Ekushey.org. If you’re in Bangladesh, you might want to consider the “Bangla Unicode” layout or the “UniJoy” layout, as they’re similar to layouts popular in Bangladesh. I started using the “Inscript” layout, and have been quite happy with it—both the other Ekushey.org layouts and Avro periodically “glitch” for me when entering Bangla into Anki. (The main reasons for using a Bangla keyboard rather than going through English phonetics: you’re “thinking in Bangla”, which should aid your language acquisition, your fluency in typing, and your awareness of how words are spelled. Basically, you’re developing the Bangla side of your brain in preference to the English side.)

Go through all of the “script” lessons of Complete Bengali—learning the script is essential if you’re going to go far. Create flash cards for the characters and words in these lessons. Radice’s transcription is great, but for ease in typing consider using “O” for “অ”, “o” for “ও”, uppercase letters for retroflex “D” and “T” sounds and lowercase for dental, and rolling your own transcription for the “æ” or “a as in cat” sound—I often just use “ae” without the special IPA character. If you want the special characters, use Character Map (hold down the Windows Key, then press R; type in “charmap” and hit Enter; then select the character you want, hit Select, and hit copy). Note that there’s a wide variety in systems to transcribe or transliterate Bangla words into characters in the Roman alphabet (or related to such characters).

After learning the script and some basic vocabulary, you’re ready for the next phase. This is mostly based on what you want to know, but here are some of the things in my “phase 2” pantry:

  • Hanne-Ruth Thompson’s books.
    • Her Essential Everyday Bengali is a great intro, but is out of print.
    • The phrasebook has a lot of useful straight-to-Anki content (topically organized sentences with meanings and phonetic transcriptions, a smattering of grammar, and a glossary). I’d suggest not trying to memorize items from the glossary directly—without context, it’s quite difficult. See below for more on vocabulary building.
    • From what I’ve seen of her Comprehensive Grammar, it’s well worth even its frighteningly textbook-ish price. It’s a great reference for “why do they do that” questions, and also includes a huge number of sentences for use in the “sentence method” (see below).
    • I haven’t seen her “practical dictionary”, but have one on its way. I’m hopeful that it includes example sentences—as Essential Everyday Bengali does, but the recent phrasebook does not.
  • The online dictionaries on the University of Chicago’s site are invaluable—they’ll even have a pronunciation dictionary soon! Nevertheless, you may still need to steel yourself for a fair amount of frustration in looking up words. Be aware of the “dictionary form” of verbs and of common suffixes.
  • Google Translate can sometimes help when the other dictionaries can’t.
  • Be aware of the four main language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Consider what balance is best for you. Go back and read some of the articles linked from EverydayLanguageLearner’s “Programs” section.
  • If you don’t have any connections with a native speaker of Bangla, try to figure out if there’s any way you can connect with one who’ll answer questions when you get stumped—perhaps as a friend, perhaps as a paid service. Check out the South Asian groceries/restaurants in town; perhaps someone there knows someone who might help you. Hit the Net.
  • Especially for unassisted study, multilingual resources are great. Bangla translations of books are great, but can be hard to find if you aren’t in-country. One book, of course, that is available in most languages is the Bible—a Bangla version of the New Testament with audio is available here. Add in a contemporary English translation, and you have a trifecta—Bangla text, parallel English text, and Bangla audio for pronunciation, speech rhythms, etc.
  • NHK World Radio has a Bangla-language podcast. I’m also hoping that the Bangla Golpo podcast and the BPA’s Bengali Audio Books podcast have content that will be helpful. Prothom Alo, if I understand correctly, is a Bangla-language sister publication to the Daily Star, and may contain similar articles. SomewhereInBlog.net is a hosting site for numerous Bangla blogs—I don’t yet have personal experience with it. Also, of course, there’s the Bangla-language Wikipedia!
  • Buy books from Bangladesh anywhere in the world through BooksBD.com or Boi-Mela.com. You can also get a number of government-published school-books free in PDF form from the latter site.
  • Unicef Bangladesh has a collection of “Meena” videos in Bangla and English. Great for early listening practice, with relatively basic vocabulary and understandable speech. Some Bangla-dubbed movies and cartoons are also available through in-country purchase or on YouTube.
  • With most of the audio or video sources, you’ll probably get the most from making a number of passes through, each time trying for maximal understanding (and perhaps even transcribing) and noting as much of what you don’t understand as you can for later lookup.
  • The Learning with Texts software is free, open source, public domain, and does a wonderful job of offering “assisted reading” of texts and integrating with Anki for review. The downside is that installation takes a bit of “geek work”, but I don’t think it’s impossible even for non-geeks. 🙂 If you use it, define Bangla as using http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/romadict.pl?query=###&searchhws=yes&table=biswas-bengali as your Dictionary 1, adding “।“ (without the quotes—that isn’t a pipe |, but a Bangla end-of-sentence character) to “RegExp Split Sentences”, and setting “RegExp Word Characters” to “a-zA-ZÀ-ÖØ-öø-ȳ\x{0980}-\x{09FF}”, again w/o quotes.
  • One book available from BooksBD.com is a pronunciation dictionary, “Bangla Uchcharon Ovidhan” (বাঙলা উচ্চারণ অভিধান). This should be especially useful when studying Bangla out-of-country.
  • A friend of mine recommended Humayun Ahmed’s book “Sera Humayun” (সেরা হুমায়ুন by হুমায়ুন আহমেদ), an anthology of his works. Apparently, Ahmed writes using fairly simple language, and includes a lot of spoken-language patterns in his writing. This book is apparently available from the above boi-mela site.
  • If you have Bangla-speaking friends, get them started with RhinoSpike.com, lang-8.com, and Forvo.com. If they’re studying another language, they’ll benefit—and they’ll help others to learn Bangla!
  • So You Want to Learn a Language has a much-more comprehensive list of Bangla-learning resources than this one.
  • The “sentence method” seems like a powerful tool for vocabulary and grammar acquisition. See AJATT’s articles (1, 2, 3), Japanese Level Up’s posts (1, 2) on how (for Japanese)…and Living in the Middle Kingdom’s great “nuts and bolts” article on building useful sentence cards and on integrating Learning with Texts and Anki. Also see an interesting (and somewhat controversial) relevant article from the Mezzofanti Guild.
  • It’s interesting to see other people’s take on learning Bangla—a couple of such blogs are A Tangle of Wires and My Bangla Diary.

So…to a substantial degree, you’ll need to figure out what works for you. For myself, I’m expecting over the next year to use a smattering of audiovisual consumption, trying to transcribe and understand what I hear from various movies and podcasts. I’ve done some skim-reading of Thompson’s grammar, and expect to do more of that, occasionally drilling into one section or another. But most of all, I hope to mine Thompson’s books, Humayun Ahmed’s stories, and other online Bangla sources for real-world texts. I’ll then plug these texts into Learning with Texts, make sure I largely understand them, and then add the learned vocabulary to Anki—with its context—to ensure I retain it. I’ll try to run my transcripts of audio through LWT/Anki as well to ensure retention. By including Thompson’s books in my “mining” of sentences, I hope to gain a fair amount of grammar—both through initial exposure as I enter the sentences in Anki and read the relevant info, and through the subsequent magic of a spaced-repetition system.

Any other great resources or tools? Let me know in the comments!

Synthesize, don’t harmonize.

It goes by many names–the false dichotomy, the either/or when you should be thinking both/and, first things and second things. We have a mental weakness–we’re fine with exposure to various ideas, but we want them to combine into perfectly harmonized chords.

Perhaps we should be trying to synthesize ideas rather than to harmonize them. To synthesize literally means to put together; we’ve added a connotation of putting things together in a way that makes sense. To harmonize ideas is to make them fit together. The problem is, ideas aren’t always mutually consistent in themselves; they may each be true within specific contexts or in specific ways. Sometimes, we simply need to hold several mutually inconsistent ideas. Don’t force them to premature consistency; don’t stop asking why they seem both true and inconsistent, or on what underlying framework they both might fit.

When two ideas are in conflict, consider that the “opponents” may actually be on the same team, but playing by rules you don’t yet know. You have a deep framework, a network of ideas that makes up who you are. Some ideas are easily wired into the structure; others require a lot of reorganization. As your framework gets more complex, you gain in ability to process ideas. Apparent conflicts are a gift, forcing you to increase your mental abilities in order to handle them. Embrace this chance to grow.

One Big Thing

Part of the reason that I am/will be blogging about books I read is to force myself to process them more deeply than I often do. Today, I thought of another tool that might be helpful: the “One Big Thing”.

“One Big Thing” is a phrase stolen from Immunity to Change. That book tells the story of a group of people who knew that they needed to change, but who didn’t each know exactly what needed to change. Rather than trying to change many things at once, they found it most helpful if each person decided, with others’ input, what was the One Big Thing he or she needed to focus on.

Pulling the “One Big Thing” into a different context, I hope to ask that question of each book I read: what is the “One Big Thing”, the unifying idea or the typical gem that defines this book? Why is the book worth reading (if indeed it is)?