Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Man Who Stole Your Ability to Memorize...and How You Can Get It Back

Of all the theories people have about their own intelligence, perhaps none is so ridiculous as saying that you have a “bad memory.” As tutors who work one-on-one with students from elementary school all the way through graduate school, we interact with a broad slate of learners--and we hear this one all the time. When we hear students say they have a “bad memory,” we want to say, “Sure, kid. And you know the lyrics to how many songs? You can recite how many comedy sketches by heart? You remember the layout to how many video game levels?” The thing is, these kids do struggle to remember things in school. It’s just that the problem isn’t with their memory. It’s not even with the particular subject they’re studying. It’s with how they’re viewing the information. Anyone who thinks they have a “bad memory” is probably using outdated memorization techniques, but the real problem is they’re not outdated enough.

Nowhere is the power of perspective more obvious than in how kids approach history. Some kids view history as a story. They love it and they find it easy to remember. Other kids view history as a series of random facts. Generally speaking, these kids hate history. These two approaches to studying for a test are totally different. The kids who view history in terms of the big picture spend their study time relating historical events to other historical events--and even more memorably, to their own lives. They find the logic that underlies series of historical events, and they emotionally relate to the experiences of the figures in their textbooks. Because they make history fun and relatable, their knowledge of it is long-lasting and can be easily used.
On the other hand, the kids who view history as a series of random facts rely on the least effective memorization technique of all-time: the flashcard. They treat each individual fact as an isolated piece of “data” to be independently stored. Quick question. How many stories do you remember from your high school days? What percentage of the flashcards you studied do you remember? Flashcards--and the technique of mindless repetition in general--are the worst method for making information stick. The latest science shows that the best method around...is story.

This shouldn’t be news. For over 99% of human history, the primary way of passing information from generation to generation was through stories. The Odyssey, The Bible, Gilgamesh and Enkidu...stories, stories, stories. Remember that these stories began as oral traditions. Long before they were able to be written down and shared, bards traveled the country reciting these 100,000-word-long poems entirely from memory. And it wasn’t weird or impressive. Stories are so effective that people could and do remember the entirety of these works word-for-word. And as it turns out, the human brain is not wired to store random data; it’s wired to remember stories.

Homer (far left) was not the only person to figure out the power of story
In his book Moonwalking With Einstein, Josh Foer goes on a journey into the world of the international memory championships. There, he meets people who learn and recite large amounts of random data in short amounts of time. But what they’re actually doing inside their heads is not memorizing the data--they’re turning it into a story. Funnily enough, the “Memorization Bible” for Josh’s memory mentor is not some up-to-the-minute book on neuroscience. It’s a text from Ancient Rome that uses the principles of narrative to make memorizing even the most daunting mountain of data doable. Humanity used to be amazing at memorization. It’s not a skill we are “bad at.” It’s a skill we all have lost.

If our ancestors already knew the power of storytelling, then how did we get so off-track with how we remember important things? When did we decide that memorizing something should feel dull? The idea that schoolwork should feel like work is one of the conspiracy’s greatest achievements. And in part, that idea came from the conspiracy’s spin on the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied memory over 100 years ago.

Ebbinghaus wanted a strictly scientific way to measure the act and efficacy of memorization. That meant he had to eliminate any unfair (and unequal) memorization advantages that came from different people having lifetimes of personal experience, both logical and emotional. So, he constructed an experiment that took logic and emotion out of the equation. In his experiment, subjects were required to remember long lists of three-letter nonsense words. The words had to be combinations like “KOJ”; try as anyone may, there was nothing even slightly memorable or logical--or interesting--about them. As if that wasn’t dull enough, Ebbinghaus then took away emotion as well. The words were to be repeated in the exact same vocal inflection to the regular beat of a metronome. Unsurprisingly, no one would participate as a subject in Ebbinghaus’s experiments except Ebbinghaus.
Ebbinghaus made learning boring

Even though you may never have heard of Hermann Ebbinghaus, you’ve certainly felt the effects of his discovery. Ebbinghaus purposefully removed the advantages of emotion and logic for the sake of his experiment, and his results made a huge splash in the scientific community. But once he was done proving that repetition is one way to make memories, everyone forgot to bring back those other, far more advantageous ways. Instead, we all came to believe that we have to endure super-boring repetition in order to memorize new facts. People became less concerned with how they were working than with how hard they were working. It’s either instant genius or blood, sweat, and tears. UGH! Thanks a lot for that one, conspiracy!

So the good news is that you can memorize anything! You just need to turn it into a story, and your brain will be happy to remember it for you. So, how do you transform what starts off as random data into brain-friendly stories?

1) Look for the inherent logic. In stories, the logic is often chronological, and that is super helpful for studying history or literature, for instance. But for something like science or math, you can also use spatial logic, the steps of a process...anything that connects the information in a meaningful way. Understanding things in terms of the bigger picture always ensures that any one fact has a tougher time escaping.

Want to make it even more unforgettable?

Katie doesn't need flashcards to remember her wedding day. Does anyone?
2) Add emotion.  We remember stories from our own lives not just because of where and when they occurred, but because of what they felt like. Emotion is an extremely powerful memorization tool; it’s why you never forget where you were on 9-11, or the birth of your first child, or the most embarrassing moment of your childhood. Find reasons to attach emotion to what you’re learning. If it’s history, what would it feel like to be leading the charge at Normandy, or to be Augustus right after Caesar was slain? Making the information relatable to you and your own experience makes it almost impossible to forget.

3) Finally, don’t be afraid to add logic or emotion from outside of the material. Many people know to come up with mnemonic devices to make things stick, but if you can make those devices gross, or hilarious, or downright absurd, then you’ll be giving yourself a visual that is unforgettable. It doesn’t matter if that memory hook has anything to do with the data when you start; once you’ve connected them in your mind, you’ll never forget them.

Sharpie Makers: 1. Humanity: 0.
The only people who have benefited from our culture’s obsession with mindless repetition are the people who make notecards and Sharpies. The rest of us have had to waste a lot of time and endure incredible boredom all in pursuit of the weakest, least durable memories out there. If you want to read more about the science that is transforming our understanding of memory and the learning process, check out free download of “The Science Behind the Straight-A Conspiracy.” And from now on, ditch the flashcards, and focus on figuring out why your learning makes sense. Take the time to understand the logic behind a math equation and you’ll never forget it. Look for ways to connect emotionally to your required reading. And, above all, weave everything you’re learning into a story. The most up-to-date learning tool is actually the oldest one on earth.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

If You Want Your Kid to Be a Better Student, Make Them Your Teacher

How do you know when your child is actually ready for a test? 

We meet parents all the time who are willing to spend hours the night before, doing endless flashcards with their child, or asking the same vocabulary words over and over. By the time the child goes to bed, he or she can recite the correct answer, right on cue, 100% of the time. But then, a week later, the test comes home, and somehow it didn’t pay off. The grade is a C, and the kid feels horrible. But what more could you possibly have done?

Before you conclude that your kid is one of those infamous “naturally bad test takers,” think again. There are plenty of students who can recite the right answers after studying in one particular way. But today, we want to once and for all make a huge distinction between being able to recite answers and actually understanding the material.

In order to be truly ready for a test, a student should be able to answer the questions in any form: give the word when they hear the definition, give the definition when they hear the word, use the term in a sentence...and then use it in a second, different sentence, and so on. Hearing this is, understandably, stressful for parents. Going once through flashcards is something that you can always find time to do. But how are you supposed to think of every possible way that a piece of information might ever get asked to your child??!!

You’re not. The best way to test your student’s understanding--their actual ability to comprehend, use, and apply the information--is to have them teach it to you. Teaching requires such a firm grasp of the concepts that you can bend them into whatever shape or form is going to allow your listener to understand them. Anybody can simply recite a fact; the true test of whether you really understand something is to see whether you could teach it to someone totally new to the material. Chances are, you, the parent, have not been brushing up on Ancient Mesopotamia lately. That makes you the perfect pupil!

Ben Franklin: Writer-Electricity-Guy?
What’s more, as a parent, you’re the expert on your own child’s facial expressions. You know when they feel confident about what they’re saying, and when they’re sort of weaseling their way out of giving a straight answer. Based on the inflection of their voice, does it sound like they’re making a statement or asking a question? “Umm…Ashley ate the last cookie?” “Umm...Ben Franklin was...a...writer-electricity-guy?” If, as the pupil, you feel that your “teacher” is not making the lesson 100% clear for you, then ask questions and make them look up more details or explain it better. You’re not leaving here until you’ve learned!

One great way to push your child to better understanding is to ask for connections that relate the material to aspects of everyday life or to other subjects. For example, if your child is learning the parts of the cell, and that includes lysosomes, then they might say, “Lysosomes are responsible for, like, proteins and other chemicals.” This certainly does not feel like a clear-cut lesson. Ask for more help. At that point, you and your child can look at the parts of the word to see if any of them are familiar in something you know. “Lyso… lyso… that sounds like Lysol!” Lysosomes are responsible for breaking down everything from tiny food particles to bacteria. Oh, wait! Lysol kills bacteria. That’s a great way to remember it. (Actually, both take their name from the Greek root lys- which means to separate, but that’s not important. What matters is that your kid finds a connection to what he or she is learning that makes sense and is memorable.)

Having your child be the teacher guarantees that he or she actually understands it. But even better, it’s much more fun than going through flashcards. Studying becomes a game, and the rule of the game is that you play dumb until your child has really taught you to understand the concepts.

Vocab: Pretend that you don’t speak English. Have them explain what the word means in a way that is CLEAR. (This cannot be, “Um, dubious is, like...bad...and...you know, sort of...not good…”) Then, have them explain when you’d use that word in life. Again, break it down and relate it to other words if it still seems fuzzy.

History: You are an alien who just landed on Earth. You have never heard of this “Ge-ORG-EY WASH-ing-TONE” fellow. Make your child tell you the story of the American Revolution. It’s not just a list of separate terms--it’s a narrative, and all of these terms are connected through the events. You’re done when you understand all that happened…and why each of those terms or major players mattered.

Science: Play dumb. Have your child explain the cell, not just in terms of the separate parts, but in terms of the processes and connections involved. And they’d better make sure you appreciate the big picture too! Why are cells SO COOL? If you’re not excited, then they haven’t done their job.

No chemistry? No problem.
Playing dumb is the best way you can help your kid!
Perhaps, you’re one of those parents who is panicked because your child has officially surpassed the level of high school knowledge that you remember from way back when. When your child had questions about subtraction, you felt like a superhero. Now that the questions are about physics, you feel like running out of the room. Thankfully, playing dumb is the best thing you can do! Have your child teach advanced chem to you; not knowing anything about it makes you the perfect guinea pig student. You may not know chemistry, but you can certainly tell if a lesson is fuzzy, if you can follow along, and if it’s making sense.

How do you know when your child is actually ready for a test? When they can teach it to you. Next time your kid asks you to study, hand them the chalk and get ready to be schooled.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The College Conspiracy: Make Your Personal Statement Work For You

Many years ago, when I first started helping students through the college application process, I found myself up late one night, editing essays. I had read three or four at that point; my eyes had that burny-glaze that comes from staring at the computer screen for too long, and all of the claims the students made were starting to blur together. I opened the final essay of the night, expecting more of the same and suddenly, it was as if I’d been doused in a bucket of ice water. I was wide awake. The topic of this essay...was earwax.

I won’t get into the gory details. While I don’t condone--or at least don’t encourage--telling admissions officers about your bodily functions, there is an important lesson about college app personal statements to be taken from that brave student. It’s a lesson that almost every applicant with whom I’ve ever worked has needed to hear, and it has to do with understanding what the application essay is really for.

In the wake of this year’s Early Decision deadline, I’ve already seen many, many student essays. And the biggest mistake that students make is this: they write what they think a college wants to hear. Generally speaking, this approach produces formal, stilted essays, full of vocabulary words the student would never use, and covering topics that are so trite and immediately forgettable that they do the student no service at all. If your personal statement is about the American Dream, the importance of diversity, or why love matters, then chances are, it won't stand out.

The SAT scores, the transcript, the resume--those things all show what you are, and they tell a college whether or not you can go there--whether you will be able to handle the academics. The essay is the part of the application in which you actually get to show the college who you are. What are you like? What’s your personality? Would you make for a fun roommate? Be someone interesting to have in a class discussion? That’s what the essay is all about.

What’s more, you need to imagine what it’s like to be in the admissions officer’s shoes. Admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements. Most of them all sound pretty much the same. So if an essay about earwax came across your desk...well, that’s an essay you’d be sure to remember.

Students, when you’re working on your essays, throw out any notion you had of what colleges will want to hear. What do you want to say? Challenge yourself to include specific stories and vibrant details from your experiences. Tell the reader exactly what it was like for you to be in those moments, or to do what you did. Give the reader touchstones, like the moment you first became interested in the hobby you’re describing, or how you felt when you first heard that you’d be moving to a new town in the middle of your junior year. You’ll be amazed; once you give yourself permission to just share your experience and tell it to the reader the way you’d tell it to a friend, writing the essay becomes so much easier.

Finally, take the time to make sure the reader knows why you chose this topic in the first place. Really dig deep, reflect on the experience, and try to understand how it changed you or what you learned from it. What about this makes it so significant in your life?  For example, I worked recently with a new student who had an essay draft about how, because of her parents’ jobs, she changed schools three times between eighth grade and senior year. Initially, the essay was really just describing what those different schools were like; we saw what she’d been through, but it didn’t really teach us much about who she is; only what she’s done. So, we applied Katie’s famous So What? Test.

I changed schools three times.
So What?
Well, it was hard, because I kept leaving the friends that I’d made and feeling out of place.
So What?
So...for a while it made me a bit of a wallflower. I didn’t really reach out or try to make friends.
So What?
Well, now that I’m in a school I love, I’m not anymore.
So What?
I ended up meeting every kind of classmate across every walk of life. And now I know how to get along with and understand all of those people. And I’ve gained confidence to be in any situation and figure out how to make it work for me. And I think that will be important in college.

Your essay can’t just be reporting the news. Take the facts and then show us why they matter. Did this experience teach you to push yourself out of your comfort zone? Did you learn the pitfalls of leadership? Was this the moment when you discovered what you want to do in the future? Why? If you can use the So What? Test to get to that level, you’ll have an essay that really tells the admissions office who you are, what you value, and what kind of person you’ll be in the incoming class.

Bottom line: have fun and be yourself. No one likes a stuffy essay, and that’s just the kind that blurs into all the others. Think of the kinds of specific, interesting stories that are most memorable to you, and share them in your own voice. Give the reader that jolt awake that he or she needs. And find the surprising details or topic that make your essay truly stand out. You know. Like earwax.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Truth Behind the Left-Brain Right-Brain Divide

This week a quiz was floating around the pages of Facebook titled “Which Side of Your Brain is more Dominant? The 30-Second Brain Test.” As with most fun, fast, facebookable material, it had tons of shares and comments from various users, describing their results and what that says about them. And as your trusty brain-truth public servants, we just couldn’t let this go.   

The left-brain-right-brain myth is one of the biggest ones out there, and as far as facebook quizzes go, this one is about as scientifically sound as the perennial favorite, “Which Sex and the City Character are You?”
But the left-brain right-brain question is far more pernicious, because people take it to heart and use it in their ongoing attempt to explain their own strengths and weaknesses--specifically whether they’re a more “creative” or “rational” thinker. We hear about this theory in our work with students all the time, and frankly, we’re sick of it.

Here’s the deal. Dr. Jeffrey S. Anderson, MD PhD, and his team of researchers at the University of Utah recently debunked this theory, testing over 7,000 areas of the brain in over 1,000 subjects, and concluding that everyone in the study was using his or her brain equally throughout the course of the study. There wasn’t a clear left-brainer or right-brainer among them. (Here is the article, if you want to read it!) What’s more, being left- or right-brained doesn’t explain why you write poetry or like working with numbers. In an article for LiveScience, Anderson explained, "It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right. ...Also, creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left."

To put this to the real test, this morning we got into this facebook quiz action for ourselves. Surprisingly, (or unsurprisingly if you know this is all bunk anyway), both of us got the following result: “You use both halves of your brain equally!” (The real surprise was that Hunter is actually an exact half-Charlotte, half-Miranda. Katie totally called the Miranda, but it turns out he’s a bit of a romantic too!)

But back to the quiz at hand. The truth is that the two sides of your brain are not at odds; they’re working together all the time to help you do everything you need to do each day. You’re not left-brained or right-brained. We’re all full-brained.

Unless we’re not. Here’s where things get really cool. Just because certain functions occur in certain parts of your brain does not mean they’re stuck there! In the last fifty years it has become clear just how flexible every part of the brain is. For example, in a stroke, part of your brain becomes damaged and the ability to do what that part of your brain did, whether it’s motor function or speech, is lost. In decades past, the prognosis was bleak: after a stroke, you just had to learn to live without speech or use of the right side of your face. Now, through targeted therapy, we know it’s possible to regain all lost function by training the remaining parts of the brain to take it over. You can rearrange your brain real estate whenever you need to.

If rebuilding your brain around damaged areas isn’t impressive enough...what if part of your brain wasn’t even there? What if you had to have half of your brain removed? That’s exactly what happened to a little girl named Cameron. Suffering from a rare condition called Rasmussen’s syndrome, Cameron was gripped by massive seizures every single day that made her life miserable. Doctors at Johns Hopkins suggested a radical therapy: remove the diseased half of the brain. Obviously, with half of her brain now gone, Cameron woke up from the surgery having lost massive amounts of function, including being totally paralyzed on her left side. Amazingly--and this is just how flexible the brain is--with targeted physical therapy Cameron retrained the remaining half of her brain walked out of the hospital four weeks later. It has taken a lot of work on Cameron’s part, but she is now getting great grades at a regular school. You can see Cameron’s story here:

And for more awesomeness, you can find some truly amazing stories of the brain’s flexibility in Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself.

The point is, your brain is so amazing that it could take anything that seems like a “left-brain” or “right-brain” skill and move it to the other side whenever it needed to. It’s not about choosing sides. But when we do, we hold ourselves back. Like with any other theory about our intelligence, the idea of being left-brained or right-brained supports the notion that we are hardwired to be naturally good at some things and not others. And as we know, what you believe matters. Just like Hunter believes in fairy tale romance. But also a good power lunch.

Friday, October 11, 2013

LA Teachers: Barnes & Noble Educator Event THIS SUNDAY!!!

Hey LA-area educators!  This SUNDAY, October 13th, we'll be doing a talk and book signing at the Barnes & Noble at The Grove to kick off Educator Appreciation Week!  It's a double-header with Rafe Esquith, author of Teach Like Your Hair is on Fire...sure to be an amazing morning.  Brunch, prizes, and great educator discounts.  We'd love to see you there!

RSVP: https://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/eventReg?llr=uwvcfboab&oeidk=a07e88jk3fxaa4c01e0&oseq=a00ohm7zwu9f 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

You Are Not a Computer

You Are Not a Computer: Why It’s Time to Go to War with your Flashcards

There are the students who struggle in their classes and feel like studying is mostly futile, because they don’t understand the material in the first place. There are the students who ace every class, “get” every lesson right away, and barely have to study.  And then there’s Jenna*.

Katie met Jenna a few months ago, ready to do some final preparation for the SAT II in World History. At the top of the hour, she asked Jenna to explain where she was in the study process, and was immediately hit in the face with a barrage of enthusiasm that can only be mustered by the most overachieving of overachievers.  “Well,” (Jenna takes out her stack of 350 flashcards) “I have Europe, Japan, the Americas, and most of Russia and some of India. I’ve been going through these facts one by one with my mom for two hours each night. I also made a notecard to plan where I would be in my studying by what hour. Those are here.” (Jenna takes out some additional notecards.) “I would say that I have government down, as well as major trade and commerce, fine art, major leaders, and the dates are all very solid.”  (Jenna began to arrange the stacks of notecards into various piles until she was buried in a little notecard fortress. Katie peered over the edge of it.)  “But Jenna, do you think you’re ready? How do you feel?”

“Feel? Um, I feel tired. Also I can’t remember anything about China, no matter what I do. But I did make notecards for...”

WHOA!!! Katie was getting heart palpitations just looking at all of those flashcards. Look, we’ve all known students like this. (Some of us, ahem, were this student when we were younger, and do not have to dig very deep to empathize...) Jenna is a member of a particular subset of students: those who believe that by an insane amount of willpower and brawn (with a splash or six of self-deprivation), they can become the perfect student. For these students, more is more; the more flashcards you have, the more you care about school, and the more hours you put in with those flashcards, the more points you will get on the test. Basically, if you’re not exhausted and super-stressed out, then you’re not trying hard enough.

It should not come as a surprise that these are also often the most stressed out students you can find, because they believe it should be a fair trade: more time should equal more results.  And when that doesn’t pay off, these students assume that their hardware is somehow broken.  So we’re here to set the record straight.  If you’re a flashcard addict, then you’re trying to force your brain to learn in a way that it hates. More is not necessarily more. It’s possible to get better results with way less stress. And you want to take full advantage of everything that makes your brain excellent at learning for humans… because your brain is NOT a computer.

You Are Not a Computer

As Jenna described the way she had been studying, it became clear to Katie that she was actually bragging about this torture she was putting herself through! And that was because Jenna prides herself on being a computer.

From Hal (reference for parents) to the Transformers (reference for students), our culture has given us a new sort of ideal for what “intelligence” is really all about. Computers are the ultimate learners, right? (Speaking from experience, my iPhone always knows what I want well before I do.) So, if this is all true, then it would stand to reason that students in school should try to be like computers. In other words, if you could have no emotions, need no breaks, not require water and never need to sleep, you’d be the smartest person alive. Unfortunately, you do need water and sleep, but you can copy a robot by being a really intense human who barely sleeps and forces yourself to drill flashcards no matter how much you don’t want to. Jenna had memorized her way through the Americas, across the Atlantic to Europe and even through the snowy wastelands of Russia, but now Jenna’s hard drive was maxed out. She couldn’t get the remaining information to stick in her brain, no matter how many times she drilled it, and what was worse, some of the other facts seemed to be slipping away too!

This predicament was particularly stressful for Jenna because the test was in just two days; she was running out of time. And there was no way to know how many more repetitions of this massive stack of flashcards it would take in order for it to finally click.

What Jenna had totally missed was that she didn’t need more rounds of flashcards; she needed to stop the flashcards entirely. No amount of data review would ever make the hard drive in her brain hold those facts. Her studying would benefit far more from an entirely human approach.

You Don’t WANT to be a Computer

Computers are the ultimate learners...of facts. When it comes to lists of random information, nothing beats a computer. But your brain--a human brain--doesn’t do random well. Humans remember things that make sense, so if you find yourself logging insane hours studying and not getting much further ahead, then you’re probably acting like a cyborg wannabe. Quit it, and check this out:

  • Your Brain Hates to Log Data   We’re just gonna say it. Flashcards are the worst thing ever. They’ve always felt like the worst thing ever, but until recently, we all thought they were a necessary evil. As it turns out, according to the latest research, repetition is actually the least effective of all memory strategies! So why is it the one students use the most?!  Flashcards turn what you’re studying into individual bite-sized pieces of data. Which would be great if you were actually a computer. But you’re not. Your brain hates to cram all those separate factoids in. It’s like trying to hold 100 loose tennis balls in your arms. You’re not built for that. In the same way, if you’re just relying on flashcards for all your study needs, then you’re working against your brain and what it wants!

  • The Things that Make you Human are not your Weaknesses, they are your Best Tools  Emotions and feelings do not get in your way when you are studying; they are what can make your study time successful! Know what your brain wants from a study session? Comedy. Drama. Highs and Lows. Spills and Thrills. In short, everything you get from a great story. The human brain is not built for storing random data, but it is built for remembering stories; that’s how we have preserved information since way before we had the ability to record it. So, use your humanness to your advantage. Rather than flipping those flashcards, flip your perspective on studying. Rather than separating your study guide into individual facts, the real work you need to do is in connecting all the facts to each other.

  • You Don’t Need to Clean Out your Trash Folder to Make Room for New Data  Have you ever heard students brag about how they crammed for a test, pulled off a better than average grade and then immediately forgot everything they learned? Probably so. Well, the joke is on them. That sort of cramming might get you through one test, but because of the way human memory works it actually makes the next test harder. A computer studying for a test would want to dump old information, because it only has a limited amount of space in its hard drive. We humans, on the other hand, learn most quickly by connecting new information to what we already know. More information makes things more memorable for you. And best of all, you have no limit on your storage space.

  • You Can Outsmart a Computer Any Day of the Week   Computers aren’t actually that cool. Sure, when it comes to storing data they’re tops, but they are surprisingly limited when it comes to using that data. When it comes to having ideas--writing novels, developing scientific theories, composing music and inventing new technologies--computers can’t even compete. Think about it! At the end of every robot vs. human movie, the humans win by OUTSMARTING the robots, because they can think outside of the box. So there’s the kicker: it’s not better to be a computer. It’s better to have a human brain...feelings and all.

Jenna worked her way through the world history material, and for the first time, she treated the information like one big story—not a single flashcard in sight. She looked for the connections between the big ideas. Why does it make sense that a period of immense oppression and dictatorship lead to the rise of a new leader who emphasizes Confucian ideals and the ability to work hard and raise oneself to a higher status in society? If society was without a leader for a period of time and it was verging on chaos, why would a dictatorship be the logical solution?  Rather than treating the different segments of history like their own units, Jenna turned them into a progression with an emotional throughline, and all of a sudden every piece was connected to every other piece, and it all made one unforgettable picture.
At the end of the session, Katie recapped what they had worked on—and how they had worked. Jenna nodded her understanding in a decidedly less computery way than she had just an hour earlier. As Katie started to mention the fact that there would be no more multi-hour flashcard drills, she heard a soft sniffle in the background. Katie looked up and Jenna’s mom looked as if she might burst into tears. No one likes flashcards; even the most devoted study partner.
Listen, there’s nothing that we enjoy more than being able to move a grown-up to tears. That was a good day. But more importantly, it was a testament to just how trapped most students and parents feel in these old study habits.
So the next time you find yourself bragging about how much pain and suffering you’ve put yourself through in your quest to learn something new, remember that no one likes it when you try to be a computer. Katie doesn’t. Hunter doesn’t. Jenna’s mom doesn’t. And most importantly, your brain doesn’t.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Fun things that make Hunter excited: The fact you think you’re like a computer is pretty ironic, because that thought is great evidence of the fact that you’re not like a computer at all. You’ve made an analogy! Thought of yourself and your brain in an abstract way! Try to get your iPad to do that.