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7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Search versus Memory: The price we pay

I just finished reading 'The Shallows,' by Nick Carr. In his book, Carr explores how human societies and individual human brains are shaped and changed by the tools we invent. Through a detailed examination of tools ranging from clocks and maps to the printing press and the internet, Carr discusses how these tools change how we think.

 While I enjoyed the entire book,  I was particularly fascinated by Carr's questions about the costs of outsourcing our human memories to machines.  Carr draws sharp distinctions between the way human memory functions and the way computer/technological memories function. He describes the organic way that our human memories grow and change, claiming that the act of memorizing and remembering is in fact an act of learning and understanding. He looks at memory formation at the neuronal level, examining how the creation of  "long-term memories" causes extensive synaptic connections to be forged, thereby consolidating our understandings of the information that we "memorized."

 Our memories are also linked to each other and highly contextualized. Sometimes a particular phrase or song or fragrance can cause a host of old memories to come flooding back to us. In contrast to the organic, changeable, and web-like structure of our human memories, the memories of machines are fixed and unchanging. When a machine remembers, it doesn't process or link or associate memories. A machine's memories don't change with time.

Carr poses a number of questions about the costs of outsourcing our memories to machines. When we stop learning, processing, and remembering information and rely on Google instead, what are we giving up? Our intellect? Our cultures? Our identities?

When I first started blogging, I explored the role of memorization in contemporary education in a post titled Does Memory Matter? I examined the long history of memorization as the centerpiece in education, and then ended by wondering whether memorization had become an obsolete tool of the past. Today, educators routinely devalue the role of memory in education. Why should students memorize anything when they have Google? Our kids have unlimited access to information, so remembering information seems unecessary. In a world of hyperlinked text, we can just click on a link for background information, vocabulary definitions, and any other information we may need. We don't have to remember any of it, so why bother? As a teacher myself, I rarely makes students memorize anything, and at various times in my career I have asserted that memorizing is not the same thing as learning.

However, I now wonder whether my attitude towards memorization is somehow mistaken.  Nick Carr's book has made me wonder whether memorization of some sort should stay in our curriculum, despite the presence of Google and the internet. Perhaps we need to make sure that we keep our memories sharp because it is through the process of transferring short-term memories into our long-term memories that we actually begin to understand and appreciate  information of any sort. We need to know information to really process and understand it, and knowing perhaps requires some level of memorization.

 Perhaps students should memorize the definitions of words instead of relying on hyperlinks in e-books or the spotlight function on their MacBooks. Perhaps students should memorize beautiful poetry so that they truly understand and appreciate the rhythm, rhyme, structure, and meaning of the lines. Perhaps students should actively learn and remember historical "facts" so that they can not only understand and process the information but also analyze and critique it. Without a basic storehouse of knowledge in our own brains, true intellectual understanding and appreciation may not occur.

And furthermore, without engaging in the act of memorization, students may lose out on the cognitive benefits associated with "studying" and "remembering." If we stop transferring memories from our short-term working memories to our long-term memories, our brains may not forge the new neural circuits and synaptic pathways that accompany the creation of long-term memories.

Nick Carr does not advocate meaningless rote memorization, and neither do I. However, some degree of "repeated learning" of content and skills may, in fact, be beneficial to students. Conversely, a complacent attitude towards the current trend of outsourcing our own memories to the Internet may be coutner-productive and even harmful. An interesting perspective to mull over as I plan my lessons!

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Raising a Musical Child

I’ve been thinking a lot about young children and music. At what age should a child begin to learn a musical instrument? And what are the goals of these lessons? And how can a child develop a meaningful relationship with music?

Most of the research I’ve read suggests that there is a critical window of opportunity (birth to age 7 or at the latest age 9) for children to internalize an understanding of music and pitch. In fact, according to Diamond’s book “Magic Trees of the Mind,” almost all musicians who have perfect pitch began to play an instrument before the age of 7. Additionally, research suggests that learning to play an instrument has many cognitive benefits. It helps children develop spatial and temporal sense, and it helps them identify and understand patterns. Since identifying and understanding patterns is the basis of math, researchers believe that mathematical and musical abilities may be linked.  And of course, there is no doubt that an appreciation of music enriches people’s lives. Like poetry and art, music too is a unique human gift that sustains and soothes the soul.

While it makes sense to enrol your child in music lessons from about age 6 or so, these lessons only become meaningful if the child also gains an appreciation of music and develops a meaningful relationship with music. Just as teaching a child to decode words is only one small part of raising a reader, so too is teaching a child to play an instrument only one small part of raising a musician. For the instrument to be meaningful, the child has to understand and love the magic of music, just as for reading to be meaningful, the child has to understand and love the magic of stories and books. But how does a parent create a musical home?

Here are some suggestions for parents:

-          Play music a lot, and make sure that your home is a musical place. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you play. In fact, it’s good to expose your child to a wide range of music.

-          Discuss music with your child. Just as dialogic reading (discussing books) is far more effective than simply reading a book aloud to a child, so too is dialogic music more effective than mere background music. Getting your child to listen carefully to the music and asking your child questions about what they hear and how it makes them feel is important. (Don’t overdo this though. Ultimately, the goal is enjoyment of the music. Listening to music should always be enjoyable for a child.)

-          Take kids to music and dance performances, especially ones designed for kids.

-          Dance to music together!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Home Culture

Have you ever wondered about the culture you create in your home? I'm not talking about culture in terms of race, ethnicity, heritage or religion. And, I'm not talking about how loving or dysfunctional the family is (although this is, undoubtedly, the most important aspect of any family).

I'm talking about the kind of values and interests a home embodies. What does your home say about who you are and what you value? What kinds of objects are on display in your house? What do you have up on your walls? What kind of activities does your family do for fun? What do people talk about at the dinner table? As a child, I was always fascinated by how different many of my friends' homes were from my own, and now, as a parent myself, I often consider how the culture of a home shapes the children who grow up in it.

One of my mother's close friends was a Bharathnatyam dancer. She and her husband together ran a school for dance, and they performed around India. When I visited their home as a child, I was astounded by the way it was steeped in music and dance. Their sons grew up living and breathing music and dance. There were always people dancing in their house; informal performances and rehearsals happened on their verandahs. Music resounded in every room, and all their conversations centered around music, dance, stories, and art.

One of my closest childhood friends lived in a home permeated by technology. His dad ran a software company, and his mom was also extremely computer savvy. They always had the latest technology and the best computers, and as a family, they preferred movies to books. My friend himself was always playing around on his computer -- not on mindless games, but on really sophisticated stuff. He started programming really young, and unsurprisingly, he went on to become a very successful software engineer. In his home, dinner table discussions would often revolve around computers, new technologies, and cars.

Some of my other friends grew up in homes that seemed to value the material world above all else. These friends had fancy designer homes, and their dinner table conversations revolved around clothes, shoes, gadgets, parties, and appearances.

I can think of a host of other "home cultures," each created by a different kind of family : money and business families, musical families, science families, artsy families, sporty-outdoorsy families, literary families.

My own childhood home was full of literature, poetry, and art. Big, dusty bookcases crowded with books about temples and religion, art and architecture, museums and travel. Other bookcases overflowed with works of fiction -- great literature from India and the West. We were a reading family, and we were an artsy family.  Neither of my parents cared much about technology. They just weren't into machines. We had a small TV that was never switched on. Our house was also a quiet house. I don't remember much music or noise. Everyone in the family seemed to enjoy silence and solitude.

I often consider the kind of home that I'm creating for my children. What kind of culture are they living and breathing everyday. What does our home say about what we, as a family, cherish and love? What do I want it to say?