Thursday, March 24, 2011

Commit it to Memory

What k-12 student couldn't benefit from practicing a good memory technique?  According to Joshua Foer, having a powerful memory was once equated with genius.  Today, with the "outsourcing" of information to digital technology, that is not so much the case, and people with other aptitudes are better able to excel.

MPR Kerri Miller Discussion with Joshua Foer

But make no mistake.  Tapping into one's memory is critical to being a successful student.

On the practical side of memory skills, Foer says the general principle is to "pay attention."  People are also naturally better at remembering things that have significance to them, and the more senses you can engage and emotions you can associate to something you've seen or heard, the better.

  • Want to remember someone's name?  Bounce it back to them as they tell you what it is.
  • Need a good language acquisition resource? Try Memrise -- a website in progress designed for language learning .
  • Need to give a speech?  Don't remember it word for word. Instead, create an image 'topic by topic.'

Memory techniques can be difficult to develop for structured information. Mnemonics, creating musical rhymes and branching are possibilities here. As for the student who's hitting the books for the test, we are indebted to everyone from Gutenberg to 3M:

The simple act of being able to tab a book section with a "one or two word jotting" --is a gift, Miller and Foer agreed.

Before the printing press, people obviously didn't own many books, nor were there libraries.  There was a premium on remembering what you read.  After Gutenberg, it became possible-- through page numbers, tables of contents, indexes-- to access information externally.  Add the variable of book ownership and tabbing, and you have a remarkable informational retrieval device, even before the invention of Google :)

The primary focus of this discussion on memory, however, concerned Foer's preparation advice for the annual U.S. Memory Championship in New York City, which he won in 2006.  Contrary to popular opinion that certain people possess "photographic memories," Foer said his success depended on the adoption a year-long regimen  that involved  taking unmemorable things ( random numbers, poems, decks of cards, names of strangers) and making them 'super duper memorable' in his mind's eye.

"The art of this is in taking those unmemorable numbers and transforming them in your mind's eye through some sort of a process into a scene that is so bizarre, so beautiful, so strange, so unlike anything you've ever seen before that you can't forget it," Foer explained.

This effort is so serious that 'blinders beneath memory goggles' and 'earplugs under earmuffs' are required to block out as much sensory information as possible to get about the business of remembering. 

Foer explained most memory champions employ the technique of a Memory Palace (derived from the Roman Cicero and the Greek Simonides before him) to create visual associations with particular objects in their quest to become quality rememberers.  Cicero believed this technique was so well-known that it needed no explanation to his countrymen.  Because of  the decline of the oral tradition  and the advent of many storage devices besides people's minds for retaining things, ironically the ancient technique has been largely forgotten.

After trying it, Foer was surprised to find how well the technique worked.  Surprisingly, Foer asserts that memory training is not an innate natural talent, and that many such people are also accomplished ATHLETES, as development in this area is about "discipline", "will" & "grit."

Maybe there is hope for us average folks.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

'First of Spring' Marks Turning Point in Legislative Session for Education

While the first day of Spring finally here, the season's first Robin sighting is not :)  But signals from the Legislature show things are growing unseasonably warm early this Legislative Session.

As evidence, Minnesota's House Education Finance Committee will conduct a marathon 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight walk through of the 2011 Omnibus Education bill (HF934) on Monday, March 21st.  Public testimony will be taken early in the day, and expert observers believe Omnibus Bills from both the House and Senate could be completed this week-- which would be record speed for the Legislature.

According to the educationally-earnest folks at Parents United for Public Schools, other bills to watch this session include these, some of which may find their way into the Omnibus bill.  Each set of companion bills is followed by a few sentences on what I gleaned from the Revisor-provided draft of the House version. (Please don't blame me for trying :)

HF1187 Greiling (DFL-Roseville) | SF902 Stumpf (DFL-Thief River Falls) Governor’s Education Finance Bill

Deals variously with all-day kindergarten revenue (still optional for districts) , a new Governor's award for educational excellence, achievement gap innovation fund, lease aid for charter schools, and state levy accounting, among other matters.

HF273 (Woodard-R-Belle Plaine) | SF388 Nienow (R-Cambridge) Students at low-performing schools enrollment options established

Allows students of families at 175% of poverty or lower whose school does not meet certain performance criteria to enroll at nonpublic schools, and carry per pupil and transportation funding with them.  Effectively Minnesota's "school voucher" bill (Would take effect for the 2011-12 school year).

HF945 (Petersen-R-Andover) | SF636 Olson (R-Minnetrista) Teacher licensure, evaluations, and tenure modified

Article I: Teacher Evaluation & Professional Development- a 10-section article concerning:

Select Sections:
1. Commissioner reporting of school & student growth based on highly reliable statewide or districtwide assessments. (Not mentioned, but possibly applicable,  is the Common Core Assessments push being made at the national level.) (Would apply in 2012-13.)
2-5. Directs school boards to develop a professional development model, mentoring, & peer review for both probationary and continuing contract teachers for improving teaching & learning. (Applicable 2013-14.)
6. Proposes  a teacher evaluation structure including:

    A. teacher appraisal framework that identifies performance measures for determining teacher effectiveness
    B.  a mechanism for translating the performance data into a five-part teacher effectiveness rating scale
    C.  a four-tier status designation that identifies teachers as standard, advanced, distinguished, or exemplary based on a teacher's effectiveness rating over time.
(Section would be applicable the day following enactment.)

7. Requires  school boards to establish staff development advisory committees & site professional development teams-- the majority of whom must be teachers representing various grade levels, subject areas, and special education. The advisory committee must also include nonteaching staff, parents, and administrators.  (Section would take effect in 2013-14 school year.)

9. A school board and the school administrators in a district must collaboratively establish a professional development model for school administrators designed to:
provide professional development to effectively evaluate teachers and  identify systemic strengths and weaknesses within a school, among other things. (Section effective 7/1/2012)

Article II: Teacher Employment

Select Sections:
1. Requires annual school performance report card that includes teacher effectiveness ratings established in Article I. (Would be effective July 1, 2014)
2.  Annual contracts and evaluation plan for probationary teachers (under 3 yrs. service)
3-4. Concerns 5-year contracts awarded at end of probationary term & each successive 5 year period based on growth plans and teacher effectiveness system. (Effective 2014-15 and beyond.)
12. Teacher effectiveness based bonuses: Teachers with "distinguished" rating would receive annual bonus equal to 10% of base salary and those with "exemplary" rating could receive bonus equal to 20% of base salary. (Section w/b effective July 1, 2019.)
16. Establishes Advisory Task Force for implementing teacher evaluation structure. (Would be effective the day following enactment.)

HF947 (Erickson-R-Princeton) Alternative teacher pay system modified

Refines alternative teacher pay systems (like Q Comp) that  reform the traditional "steps and lanes" salary schedules.
For those with existing plans, requires reapplication by June 1, 2013.

HF329 (Bills-R-Rosemount) | SF577 (Thompson-R-Lakeville) Public school employees prohibited from using public funds and resources to advocate to pass, elect, or defeat a political candidate, ballot question, or pending legislation. 

No additional comments necessary.

HF638 (Myhra-R-Burnsville) School grading system created, school recognition program created, school report cards modified, rulemaking authorized, and report required.

Seeks to establish an "A to F" school and district grading system for identifying schools and districts where students are achieving low, medium, or high growth on statewide assessments.
Under this plan:
  • 50% of a school's grade is based on disaggregated student data for those achieving proficiency in reading and mathematics the previous year
  • 25% of the grade is based on whether students achieved low, medium or high growth on the previous year's reading and mathematics assessments
  • 15% of the grade is based on students who did not achieve proficiency in the previous year's reading assessments
  • 10% of the school's grade is based on students who did not achieve proficiency in the previous year's math assessments
(For HF 638, data could be collected on 2011-12 for rewards to be distributed in 2012-13.)
It is common for legislators to say they often hear more from constituents on stadium bills than on education matters.  For those who think their input will be insignificant: 

Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher (D) and Rep. Paul Kohls (R) reinforced the value of constituent-initiated communication during a Midday with Gary Eichten discussion last December:

"The most powerful thing that a legislator receives today is a handwritten note from anyone," explained Kelliher, who shared the distinction with Kohls of being an outgoing legislator who had recently run for Governor. "The personal story ... the invitation to come out and visit, those sorts of things, do change legislators minds, even if you disagree with that person," Kelliher added.

In "broad bipartisan agreement," Rep. Kohls said constituent input clearly impacted "how he thought about the issues" before stating: "It's a pretty rare event for legislators to get more than a handful of comments on any one particular issue .... If I got 10 emails on any particular subject, that was a lot of noise made by my constituents ... so I hope people know that."