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« No God Needed (Sujatha) | Main | Churchill's Secret War - An Appreciation of Madhusree Mukerjee (Narayan) »

September 08, 2010


This article is interesting in more ways than one. For one, it never mentions a concrete instance of the common wisdom the cited research corrects, such as a particular study skills program. Instead, it makes generic references to "millions of parents," "unexamined beliefs," "the notion that children have specific learning styles," "hallowed advice on study habits," "the common assumption," etc. We readers are expected to nod in agreement with the premise--we are the "you" in the headline, after all--and get on to the news. But the news, it turns out, isn't news: "'We have known these principles for some time, and it’s intriguing that schools don’t pick them up, or that people don’t learn them by trial and error,' said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles." The story is reporting two phenomena: the advances being made by the research reported by the article, but also the persistent failure of "millions of parents" and teachers to learn from that research and the principles of which we've long been aware. I wonder. I recall the bar exam preparation coaches providing advice very similar to some of the methods touted in the article. "An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found." In certain respects, bar prep is not a fair comparison. The goal there is to take and pass the test, not to learn the content, a critical distinction for liminal lawyers who just want to retain their jobs.

I'm not challenging the research--as usual, I have no basis for doing so--but I take issue with the journalism. The suggestion seems to be that the former "good study habits" were peddled as necessary, sufficient, and exclusive avenues to learning. "[M]any study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work" (my emphasis). They insisted? Really?

The subject of learning, as this article itself, is a minefield for me. Learning and reading to absorb material has always been difficult for me - who knew ADD, or anything else in the 50s? Psychological makeup, family circumstances, and aptitudes inborn and received are intimately bound up in what can be learned and how much retained. In childhood I was hopelessly lost in subjects that required memory, and excelled in those that were based on 'first principles'. My parents actively participated in bridging the gap. In college I remember flunking a crucial test after which the teacher held up what little I had written as exemplary work. After high school, with no parental restraints, I just gave up and hoped that the system and my teachers could see through my deficiencies and discover my genius. Three tests administered to me in my 40s could not determine my aptitude for artistic versus analytical pursuits, and I formally became a fence-sitter. With all this, I just feel blessed that I survived and managed to give a good account of myself.

In the end, beyond some vague body of acquired knowledge essential for negotiating the working life, learning seems to have little little correlation with objective success. Dumb kids become successful adults and smart kids get mired in life. Not being a parent myself, I cannot appreciate the fears of parents who see their children unable to jump through the requisite hoops. Perhaps some day our high school grades will be reassessed just before our first social security check is sent out.

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