Do you ever come across a piece of research that seems both common sense and yet counter to your teaching practices? That's what this article "Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors" did for me:

A new study offers older adults a simple way to combat memory loss: memorization. Researchers found that seniors who engaged in an intensive period of rote learning followed by an equally long rest period exhibited improved memory and verbal recall. The study was presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"Use it or lose it"

This study affirms the adage "Use it or lose it" and the notion that you learn what you do: Memorizing improves memory. However, education practice shuns rote learning. Of course, younger students are not yet facing memory loss. And the rapid proliferation of information has led to learning how to search, find, and evaluate the information available, certainly skills needed more today than yesterday, and likely even more so in the future.

At the same time, I've read on more than one occasion that people in careers that use their mind more have less incidence of Alzheimer's. Using one's mind "creatively" isn't the same as rote learning. Still, I wonder. That is, with respect to another disease, osteoporosis, it appears that prevention in one's youth is crucial, as stated by a NIH news release:

"Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), sponsor of the Milk Matters calcium education campaign. "Preventing this and other bone diseases begins in childhood. With low calcium intake levels during these important bone growth periods, today's children and teens are certain to face a serious public health problem in the future."

Clearly, the stage for health--physical and mental--is set in our youth. This is true for the development of great chess players, mathematicians, and musicians (see The Expert Mind by Philip Ross). It would seem to be true of education in general. Just consider Matthew effects in reading (see ESL/EFL Learners Like Slow Readers). So, although I wouldn't want to return to a pedagogy focused on rote learning and repetitive drills, such as ALM, we should consider what sort of role rote learning might play in learning.

Will Thalheimer in his recent post "People remember 10%, 20%...Oh Really?" comments on false information masquerading as research fact:

People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible---learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations, including bastardizations of Dale's Cone. The rest of this article offers more detail.

Thalheimer does a great job of tracking down the sources of this misinformation, showing that sometimes it was a result of intentional deception. As he concludes,

It will seem obvious, but each and every one of us must take responsibility for the information we transmit to ensure its integrity. More importantly, we must be actively skeptical of the information we receive. We ought to check the facts, investigate the evidence, and evaluate the research. Finally, we must continue our personal search for knowledge---for it is only with knowledge that we can validly evaluate the claims that we encounter.

Update (June 8, 2008): A recent CISCO report (via Edutopia), "Multimodal learning through media: What the research says", supports Thalheimer, concluding,

The complexity of teaching and learning becomes increasingly apparent as the physiological, cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of learning become known. The percentages related to the cone of learning were a simplistic attempt to explain very complex phenomenon. The reality is that the most effective designs for learning adapt to include a variety of media, combinations of modalities, levels of interactivity, learner characteristics, and pedagogy based on a complex set of circumstances.

In general, multimodal learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional, unimodal learning. Adding visuals to verbal (text and/or auditory) learning can result in significant gains in basic and higher-order learning. The meta-analytic findings in this report provide insights into when interactivity augments multimodal learning of moderately to complex topics, and when it is advantageous for students to work individually when learning or building automaticity with basic skills.

Jay Mathews, in "New teacher jolts KIPP", writes about Lisa Suben, a new teacher in the KIPP schools, who had her math students jump from the 16th to the 77th percentile in a single year. That's an unbelievably huge jump! How'd she do it? Theoretically, she says:

"My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it."

Items (2) and (3) are related. That is, communication can (but need not) present more strands of knowledge to enter the picture that allows more connections to be made. It's not the connections per se that build understanding but rather the contradictions among them. Contradictions are the driving force of learning. On item (4), reflecting and questioning can improve one's understanding, of course, but most understanding is unconscious. That doesn't make it unvaluable.

Suben translated her theory into the following practice:

The core of her method is the workbook she produced last year on the fly. It "lets students build their own notes and create their own examples. It is incredibly active learning," she said. They were encouraged to write down the meaning of important terms and strategies they used that worked with certain kinds of problems.

Suben, I imagine, is differentiating between a traditional lecture form of teaching and Deweyan "learning by doing". It's not clear that one type of learning is more active than another. All learning is active. Of course, I can also imagine that students focus more on something they are "doing" as opposed to "receiving," and thus they spend more "effective time on task," the crucial element in learning. Thus, Suben's having her students create their own notes, examples, and meaning is an excellent way to (1) focus them more effectively on the tasks at hand and (2) bring them into contradictions between their declarative and procedural knowledge (see ACT-R Theory) and so improve their understanding.

Related posts on the five-paragraph essay:
Forget IQ. Just Work Hard!
The Expert Mind
Learning: A State of Disatisfaction
Learning with Examples

David Warlick at 2¢ Worth has got his Rubric Builder running again. He's still putting on the finishing touches, but what he writes sounds promising:

Rubric Builder is a tool kit that enables members to construct their own rubrics using an improved interface.  Once the rubric is completed:

  • Its author can generate a URL that will link to a web display of the rubric. 
  • The tool will also generate HTML code that can be pasted into a WebQuest or blog, to make the rubric a part of that web page. 
  • Rubric Builder also provides a rubric calculator, enabling the teacher (or student) to click the levels of performance for each objective and calculate a weighted score.

All rubrics are public and are available under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, share-alike license.  Members can search the database of nearly 50,000 current rubrics, select one that appears to be a good starting place for the rubric they need, and then clone that rubric and edit it for their immediate needs.  It is a sharing community environment.

It’s not completely finished.  I’m still tweaking the carburetor.  Ok, I know, they don’t use carburetors any more.  But the system is ready for folks to come in, join, or just search for existing rubrics by keyword, or, if you used the original Rubric Builder, you can enter your access code and call up many of those rubrics you built years ago.  You are also welcome to join by signing up.  This will enable  you to build your own rubrics and clone the rubrics of others.

Rubrics are a good way to avoid halo effects in grading, to make grading transparent to students, and provide feedback students on areas in which they're doing well and areas that need work.

The Intercultural Club at Kean University has long been publishing Accents, a magazine with articles from matriculated ESL students ranging in language proficiency from beginner to advanced. This past weekened, I was able to figure out a Tinderbox template for websites (designed by Marisa Antonaya) and put Accents online. If you'd like to check it out, click here.

Sometimes, I wonder about the cute titles that accompany books, but in this case, it is appropriate. Zen and the Art of Public School Teaching is written by John Perricone, a longtime high school teacher and a holder of a 6th degree black belt. From an interview conducted with Michael Shaughnessy (columnist with, Perricone says his most important message is,

The concept of "philosophical identity." It is my thesis in both my book, and my address that we 'teach who were [sic] are', and that it is our 'philosophical identity' -- our sense of mission or purpose that we envelop ourselves in each day as we enter the classroom (or lack of same) which ultimately distinguishes those who find joy and passion in the teaching profession from those who find drudgery and simply pick up a paycheck every two weeks. So, both in my book and in my Keynote address, I take my audience on an introspective journey looking first at their identity as a human being, then as a teacher, and then we look to see if and where those lines intersect.

This notion of philosophical identity is closely tied to his perspective on values in teaching:

That every human life has intrinsic worth, value, and dignity and that it is our job as teachers to give our students those tools and insights that will enable them to live their lives at the fullest and deepest expression of their humanity. If that isn't the ultimate goal of education, I'm not sure what any of us are doing in this profession.

"We teach who we are." And who should we be? From Attending to the Inner Life of an Educator: The Human Dimension in Education (pdf), Avraham Cohen's dissertation, are several responses, one of which is a poem by Rumi:

The Guesthouse

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all;
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Related posts:
Sacrifice and teaching
Ants Have Teachers
Code of Ethics

Michael Shaughnessy (columnist with interviews Elizabeth Kantor, author of the recently published book The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature. Kantor says,

students are not getting what they need in order to learn to write well. Human beings learn language—both spoken and written—through imitation. If students don't read good writing, they won't become good writers. Grammar is also very useful to writers, and unfortunately it's been out of fashion in composition classes for some decades. ...

I'd say both attitudes and information are essential to any kind of learning. But different combinations yield very different kinds of education! For example, consider the traditional English literature survey, arranged chronologically. Students get a chance to sample some very different "attitudes," first of Anglo-Saxon poets, then of a late medieval author such as Chaucer, then of Shakespeare, Milton, and so on, through the Romantic poets into the 20th century. The students won't learn everything there is to know about the great literature in English, but they'll have enough "information" to pursue more learning, if they're interested. They'll have a basic "knowledge" about the classics.

If, on the other hand, an English literature class is organized around the various trendy forms of "literary theory"—Marxism, feminism, "gender studies," "queer theory," deconstruction, and so forth—then the students are the poorer for it. All these different brands of "theory" will tend to communicate a single "attitude" to the student: a sense that the whole history of Western civilization is simply a record of oppression—whether of women, or homosexuals, of the poor, or of "people of color." And meanwhile, the student hasn't been given the "information" he needs to get to the classics, and thus to develop his own informed attitude about our past and the roots of our culture.

I have some sympathy for Kantor's perspective. When I read works of literature, I want to enjoy them for what they are, for the ideas they embody, not for anachronistic analyses. Talk about how to destroy an appreciation for literature! Even so, I have some reservations about several points in this interview.

One is, "students are not getting what they need in order to learn to write well", and for Kantor, that means reading the classics of English literature.Naturally, English majors will read all of these, but they are a small percentage of all university students. It seems unreasonable to expect that (1) a one-semester survey on the classics will have much influence on students' writing and (2) most students will read the classics deeply and widely, whether as a requirement or on their own. Perhaps they should. But that's another issue with its own complications.

Also, while I would agree that reading good writing leads to good writing, Kantor makes no mention of how much time is needed for this process to occur. Most of my students (mostly ESL, but at times non-ESL) have done little reading before entering college. A crash course in reading cannot catch these students up in a semester or two to a level at which they can readily learn to recognize and apply what they read to what they write. I'm not arguing against having students read a lot. Rather, I'm simply saying that reading literature is not a panacea for a lack of reading and writing experience.

Another issue is the conflating of literature with composition in general. Although good reading habits are usually intertwined with good writing, there's an assumption that one type of writing, or reading, transfers to another type of writing. That's simply not true. Just consider the long process that "Nate," a doctoral student who had considerable experience in expressivist writing, went through to learn to write with the conventions expected in his rhetoric program (Berkenkotter et al.). How much more so for undergraduate students without considerable reading and writing experience! With this in mind, reading in composition and other writing intensive courses should be tied to the types of writing that students will do, not to great works of literature unless it is a course on writing types of literature.

Extensive reading and engaging with great ideas are important elements of good writing. For non-English majors, however, a foundation of reading and writing based not on the classics but on contemporary writings would bear more fruit in helping students' reading, writing, and thinking skills to develop.


Berkenkotter, C., Huckin, T. N., & Ackerman, J. (1988). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.


I just came across this article Read good writing to become a good writer. In it, Carol La Valley interviews Jim Quinlan, professor at Gila Community College (Payson, Arizona), who has students in English 101 read nonfiction essays to strengthen their reading and writing skills.

David Warlick provides blogging guidelines for school administrators in dealing with teacher bloggers. As he states on his blog:

This article includes recommendations for blogging professional development, district policies, and revising AUPs to reflect the read/write web.  It includes quotes from Dr. Tim Tyson from Mabry Middle School, Chris Lehmann of the Science Leadership Academy, and Tom McCurdy of the Pinckney Community Schools.

Mark Bernstein in his presentation "Blogtalk" mentioned the importance of having "sunset policies on blogrolls." I'm not sure, but I believe his reasoning in part was due to preventing a few blogs from having undue influence over others. In fact, Mark in a talk in Australia states:

never put an A-list weblog on your blogroll

It also makes sense to me that if we want our networks to evolve and our learning to grow, then we need to change our networks at times to acquire new perspectives, or else our writing and thinking can become insular and self-confirming. We don't learn as much from those who think like us as from those who think differently. Of course, I don't plan to completely overhaul my network frequently. Learning needs a mix of change and stability. So, for stability, I'm thinking of keeping non-A list blogs, and for change, adding new blogs at the top (perhaps marking them "new" for two months?). Email me and let me know what you think about a changing blogroll.

For academic achievement, use a fountain pen. Or, so says Bryan Lewis, principal of the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Scotland (reported by Ben McConville, Associated Press, via Remote Access):

"The pens improve the quality of work because they force the children to take care, and better work improves self-esteem," principal Bryan Lewis said. "Proper handwriting is as relevant today as it ever has been."

Students as young as 7 have been instructed to forgo their ball point pens and get to grips with its more artful predecessor. By the time they reach grade five, at age 9, they are expected to write mainly with fountain pens.

In another post, I wrote about a claim that holding a pen or pencil "stimulates ideas," because it "massages acupuncture points." And now we read that "proper handwriting" results in "better work," because it "massages" self-esteem. It's interesting how it can even make sense: Students take more care, so their work improves, which in turn improves their self-confidence, which in turn improves their work, and so on. But,then again, it may be an instance of an expectancy effect, such as the Hawthorne Effect. What do you think?

Aaron Nelson at Teacher in Development has an interesting post on Teaching and Learning: How to Increase Transfer. Referring to my post on The Transfer of Expertise, he said,

the teacher must first of all DELIVER content in meaningful ways.

To illustrate, he gave an example. One of his students had requested help on how to learn word and preposition combinations. After asking her for a few weeks how he could provide that help, he came up with the creative and engaging notion of combining photos from Flickr with Powerpoint to help students "visualize word/preposition combinations in meaningful ways." What's even more pedagogically interesting to me is that he listened carefully to his student to understand how he could best help her.

At the end of his post, Nelson asked:

How are you being relevant to your students? Would you share how you make meaningful links between your content and your student’s lives?

So, now, I'll share one example of how I listened to a student to make the content more meaningful. A few years ago, one of my students made the claim that Japanese cars were better than American cars. A few days later, I entered the classroom with a PowerPoint presentation to have the students confront contradictions between that claim and the fact that not everyone bought a Japanese car. First, however, I asked the students whether or not they agreed with the other student. They all did. Next, I asked what their criteria were for evaluating Japanese cars as better than American cars. After they had listed quite a few, I then began the following series of PowerPoint slides:

  • Cars, Criteria, and Audience
  • Which car would you prefer to own?
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • American Corvette (with accompanying picture)
  • What car would a Texan prefer to own? (with a picture of John Wayne as a dusty cowboy)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Dodge Ram pickup (with accompanying picture)
  • What would Schnarzenegger prefer to own? (with a picture of the Terminator holding a shotgun)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Harley Davidson (with accompanying picture)

This presentation, pitting a Japanese car, the Honda civic, against American products, stirred up much discussion on how audiences differed in their values and in their criteria for purchasing cars, thus causing the students to reflect on contradictions between the evaluation criteria they initially formulated and the criteria that different audiences used in purchasing vehicles, and hopefully enabling them to construct a better understanding of audience that they might be able to transfer to other contexts.

Like Nelson, as a result of listening, I had responded with a presentation and tasks that would engage my students. So, I would add that to be able to "deliver content in meaningful ways," a key component is listening carefully to our students to understand their reality.

On a sidenote, although it was likely not intended, the notion of "delivering content" can suggest a transmission model of teaching/learning. With respect to student learning, you do not "connect your content with your students' reality." Connections we make reflect our learning, not the students. Rather, we establish conditions that facilitate their connecting their reality to our "content." This shift of perspective might be perceived as trivial, but for me, it is an important one because the perspectives we give voice to shape our pedagogical practices, whether consciously or not. Learning is not to a passive process of receiving knowledge, but an active process of constructing meaning as when Nelson's students "figure[d] out" prepositions and "create[d] their own sentences."

If transfer is to occur, it will be a result of students doing the connecting. Thus, in addition to listening, another key component of effective pedagogy is a focus on the learning environment, on conditions that can facilitate learning, as in Nelson's innovation of combining Flickr and Powerpoint to create "an interesting and highly visual way to work on prepositions."

A few related posts:
If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me
Is there anything new under the sun?
Chains of experience

To find out which is the right wiki for you, go to WikiMatrix.

TechCrunch writes:

Like it or not, wikis are a dime a dozen these days. So when (and if) it comes time to choose one, WikiMatrix is a good place to start. It’s a site that allows you to compare any and all wikis on the market in a side-by-side grid.

Mixing the traditional with the modern can yield fascinating products. Lynn Arditi, in the Providence Journal (via, writes about a Muslim woman pursuing her dream to become a doctor in Educating Rula, an interesting story that shows the diversity of perspectives within the Islamic world, the diversity of life in the U.S., and the commonality of human beings seeking to better themselves. Doing a medical intership,

Rula is exhausted. She attends classes three days a week; the other two days, she does her training on the radiology ward of Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence. In her kitchen, she stands at the granite counter and grinds Starbucks coffee beans, scooping the grounds into a Krups coffee maker.

Rula's story is one worth reading.

Want to improve your learning? Read Hacking Knowledge: 77 Ways to Learn Faster, Deeper, and Better (via Teaching Hacks), a compendium of tips on learning:

Life-changing knowledge does typically require advanced learning techniques. In fact, it's been said that the average adult only uses 10% of his/her brain. Imagine what we may be capable of with more advanced learning techniques. Here are 77 tips related to knowledge and learning to help you on your quest. A few are specifically for students in traditional learning institutions; the rest for self-starters, or those learning on their own. Happy learning.

Most of it is just common sense, but it's good to have all of these tips in one place and to review them once in a while. One of the interesting ones for me was #29:

Write, don't type. While typing your notes into the computer is great for posterity, writing by hand stimulates ideas. The simple act of holding and using a pen or pencil massages acupuncture points in the hand, which in turn stimulates ideas.

I don't know about the acupuncture part, but I can imagine that having to write notes by hand would slow me down, giving more time for thinking and reflecting while writing. Even so, I do almost all of my notetaking by computer with Tinderbox. Using Tinderbox allows my notes to be revised and searchable. It also allows me to make links between my notes and create a visual representation of those connections, to allow patterns to emerge. So, I can see the value to slowing down and thinking while writing, but there is also the value of revisiting notes, reflecting on them, re-organizing them, and having them in a format that "stimulates ideas." Here's a map view of notes from the Tinderbox site:

Isn't a picture worth a thousand handwritten notes?

Update: I just came across a similar article, 22 ways to overclock your brain at the Ririan Project blog (via Problogger).