kitchen table math, the sequel: for all you content freaks out there

Saturday, July 26, 2008

for all you content freaks out there

A couple of years ago Carolyn decided that's what ktm-types are: content freaks.

Well, good news! I have discovered the ultimate content freak product: SuperMemo.

Actually, I rediscovered it. A couple of years ago I came across SuperMemo in my wanderings and didn't know what to make of it. It sounded good -- it sounded great -- but who were these people? Offhand, I couldn't tell whether SuperMemo was the brainchild of some crackpot internet nut or some crackpot genius internet nut. So I filed the URL and planned to get back to it when I had more time.

Then I forgot about it until it popped back up a few weeks ago in a Wired article, which I printed out and also forgot. (Once I have my very own copy of SuperMemo and have figured out how to operate the incremental reading feature, this kind of thing won't happen to me any more.)

A couple of days ago the print-out surfaced, and there you have the Living History of my journey to SuperMemo and extreme memory:

Piotr Wozniak's quest for anonymity has been successful. Nobody along this string of little beach resorts recognizes him as the inventor of a technique to turn people into geniuses. A portion of this technique, embodied in a software program called SuperMemo, has enthusiastic users around the world. They apply it mainly to learning languages, and it's popular among people for whom fluency is a necessity — students from Poland or other poor countries aiming to score well enough on English-language exams to study abroad. A substantial number of them do not pay for it, and pirated copies are ubiquitous on software bulletin boards in China, where it competes with knockoffs like SugarMemo.

SuperMemo is based on the insight that there is an ideal moment to practice what you've learned. Practice too soon and you waste your time. Practice too late and you've forgotten the material and have to relearn it. The right time to practice is just at the moment you're about to forget. Unfortunately, this moment is different for every person and each bit of information. Imagine a pile of thousands of flash cards. Somewhere in this pile are the ones you should be practicing right now. Which are they?

Fortunately, human forgetting follows a pattern. We forget exponentially. A graph of our likelihood of getting the correct answer on a quiz sweeps quickly downward over time and then levels off. This pattern has long been known to cognitive psychology, but it has been difficult to put to practical use. It's too complex for us to employ with our naked brains.

Twenty years ago, Wozniak realized that computers could easily calculate the moment of forgetting if he could discover the right algorithm. SuperMemo is the result of his research. It predicts the future state of a person's memory and schedules information reviews at the optimal time. The effect is striking. Users can seal huge quantities of vocabulary into their brains.

Want to Remember Everything You'll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm
By Gary Wolf
Wired Magazine

memory is good

The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn't important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don't really matter. Facts can be looked up. That's what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.

The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it's false. "The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?" asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA's psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. "You can't escape memorization," he says. "There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That's a stage we all go through. It's all the more important to go through it rapidly." The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.


I speak as a person who writes nonfiction for a living. You cannot write a book about a subject in which you aren't expert without committing the vocabulary of the field to memory.

Google isn't memory.

The internet isn't memory.

The World Book Encyclopedia isn't memory.

spaced reptition: To write a book, you have to learn the vocabulary of the subject you are writing about. Also the schema, (pdf file - NOTE: I've read only the first page of this article) to the degree that you can.

And learning means committing to memory.

End of story.


Anonymous said...

"The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory."

but proper associations must also be taught explicitly in order to load data into memory. We can't just assume that students will figure out history just by memorizing every letter, comma and period of the Gettysburg Address or other historical documents. I also do not like how Saxon treats math as many disconnected, individual pieces of data that need to be memorized.


Barry Garelick said...

I also do not like how Saxon treats math as many disconnected, individual pieces of data that need to be memorized.

Saxon is not constructed that way. The lessons are constantly integrated and repeated throughout the book, and increase in complexity, building upon mastered concepts and skills.

Tex said...

Boy, I’ll second what Barry wrote about Saxon.

I after-schooled my daughter with Saxon a few years ago, and I found it to be organized in a logically hierarchal format that incorporated the right kind of spiraling that aims for mastery.

Anonymous said...

What tex and Barry said.

I after-schooled using Saxon for 2 years and found it far more thoughtful than it appears at first sight.

I do remember years earlier looking at it and thinking that it was just too simplistic. When I actually used it and had my son do all of the various exercises, I was surprised at how it all tied together.


Catherine Johnson said...

We can't just assume that students will figure out history just by memorizing every letter

Right -- he's got one page, in particular, where he explains the fundamental laws of memory; I think his first law is that you have to understand the material you're trying to memorize.

He may not say you have to understand it, but that memory is far more efficient and reliable when you do understand it. Willingham says the same thing, iirc.

I assume this is one of the pragmatic reasons why constructivists focus so intensely on meaning -- from one angle of vision constructivism is arguably about getting (some) material into long-term memory in the easiest way possible (I approve of that goal - !)

For quite a while I've had the perception that constructivists tend to assume, consciously or not, that if you understand something you also know it --- and can retrieve it.

It may be the case that in order to understand something you have to know it, but that has practically no bearing on whether you're going to be able to retrieve it when you need it.

Retrieval/recall are the hard part.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll split the difference on Saxon!

Obviously, I'm a huge fan; I taught C. all of Saxon 6/5, and I've worked through 6/5, Algebra 1, and almost all of Algebra 2.

But the jumping around often bothers me...I'll open up Dolciani & see coherent, developed chapter covering ONE SUBJECT and think: great.

Saxon definitely teaches the concepts, not just procedures.

ALEKS uses the lesson approach, btw.

Talk about jumping around ---

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm getting this program -- haven't figured out yet how to do it (online version or Windows).

Apparently the guy who invented it is a total eccentric (I suspect Asperger's) so things like developing the product to make it user-friendly aren't a priority.

Scratch that: things like developing the product and making it user friendly aren't even on the To Do list.

Catherine Johnson said...

I desperately need a program like this to finally learn the various terms for brain regions.

This week, AGAIN, I was trying to figure out vetral striatum versus dorsal striatum....

Ari said...

Hung Hsi Wu wrote: "There is no rhyme or reason about the sequencing of the topics. For example, the things are really broken up. The report gives the examples. One of the grade levels, grade four or grade five, has exactly two sections on probability (that's right two sections). They belong together and without a doubt there is no increase in sophistication or techniques, and yet I think they are separated by 200 pages. When I do this I want to emphasize that I do not single out one or two examples. I am trying to describe through one or two examples the overall the overriding impression that I have."

Contrast with Connecting Math Concepts (SRA/DI), where mastery of a topic is required before a new topic is taught and shows how concepts are linked together.


Catherine Johnson said...

Well, you're preaching to the choir -- I would kill to have had Connecting Math Concepts in K-5 ---

I haven' read th Hu piece, so he may have talked about this, but I'd be surprised to find that Saxon drops a topic for 200 pages.

Typically, you have distributed practice on all topics in between repeated lessons.

wordsmith said...

For those who are interested in playing around with SuperMemo but are reluctant to plunk down money for it, a like-minded program exists at mnemosyne. Same principle of spaced repetitions determined by algorithm, less complex user interface than SuperMemo. I have both, and to tell you the truth, SuperMemo is heavy on all the bells and whistles, making it somewhat intimidating and therefore difficult for noobs to enjoy its full potential.

Either way, programs like these are invaluable for learning languages and/or memorizing tons of stuff.

Tracy W said...

He may not say you have to understand it, but that memory is far more efficient and reliable when you do understand it.

I find that when I can't understand something, memorising it by rote often helps with the understanding. Once it's all loaded into my brain, it seems to help with thinking about it.

Barry Garelick said...

Re, Saxon:

I have the same qualms as Catherine. I do not agree with Ari that the pieces are disconnected, requiring memorization. I like the Saxon books up to algebra. The algebra sequence does jump around too much for my tastes. Why is this a problem? Because sometimes you need more time on a particular concept. With development of the quadratic formula, they happen to do it right in Saxon's Algebra 1. They have a lesson on solving quadratics by fatoring, then completing the square, and then the quadratic formula.

But sometimes you want to visit with a topic more thoroughly. Sometime you need a lot of problems on the same topic, increasing in difficulty, and that's hard to find in Saxon.

When I was tutoring my daughter in sixth grade, I knew I had to bring her up to speed on fractions. I didn't have a lot of time to spend, since her school was using EM and they were going to hit the units on multiplication and division of fractions in a matter of weeks, and I wanted to get to her first. Had I chosen Saxon, I couldn't have given her the concentrated dose she needed in the time frame I had. With Saxon, it's all or nothing. You have to stick with the program from the beginning because its incremental approach doesn't allow you to pick and choose topics.

So I went with Singapore, starting with fractions from the 4th grade, following with 5th and getting up to 6th.