Overcoming Barriers to Learning


I was working with Derek recently to improve his signature. We were working on technique and the pen or pencil or lined paper was just slowing down the trials. A friend of my told me a few years ago about teaching beginning letters and numbers to her pre-schooler by having him write them in shaving cream on the bathroom mirror. So, I sprayed some on the window of the back door and we worked out some of the letters. I showed him a couple of different ways he could draw the first letter and we practiced the flow of the smaller letters. It was much easier to get a rhythm going while drawing with one finger in shaving cream. The pen and paper had become an obstacle, so we removed it. Within ten minutes, Derek chose a font that he liked and he wrote it on paper with a pencil.

I had a similar problem with a barrier to working on algebra. I actually cried about it a few nights ago. I do well enough in math, but the manner in which this class is executed is so infuriating. The material is very wordy and multi-media. There are multiple options for practice and practice and practice, but if you aren’t careful, you will miss out on the work that counts! And this isn’t even common core. ūüôā ¬†I told my daughter about it the next morning and she said, “Wait a minute. Who is the teacher?” I told her the name and she said, “Ha! I knew it. I had the exact same teacher and same format. I know what you’re talking about. I cried too.” So, aversion to this teaching method runs in the family. I hit that math again the next day and decided to “cut the fat” and get to the meat. I didn’t need the videos. I ignored the extended narrative. I avoided the spoon-feeding and traps that took me down study-plan-alley with its lost hours of practice and quizzing that doesn’t count toward my grade. I found examples of the problems. Copied them exactly and replicated the method on the actual problems that counted for a grade. I only had to check a few facts. I wrote my own narrative and drew pictures and highlighted. My own notes stand ready for studying for the exam.

So, think I didn’t learn anything? On the contrary. I learned plenty. I learned it all.

The other method doesn’t work for me ever, and I’m not just being stubborn. Lecture first, reading second, practice third and then testing is the order that sounds most logical, yes? Go to the lecture, take home the book or papers, read, practice, take a test. ¬†Right? That’s crippling for me. I took an informal test once to see what kind of learner I am…auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. I am a kinesthetic or tactile learner. I need hands on work while I’m learning. ¬†I scored a close second for visual learner¬†and for auditory, I scored a zero. ZERO. Which means telling me something you want me to learn is very close to useless. This “disability” was hammered home recently when I was trying to learn a song for my voice class just by listening. It was in Italian and I had no literature. I learned nothing. In fact, I could hardly hear the lady’s voice over the orchestra in the recording. A week after I started working on that song, I found the literature. Everything about the song became instantly learnable. I learned what opera it came from and who composed it. I counted the beats, I followed the score, I anticipated the entrance and then suddenly I could hear the exact words. I read the translation. It was no longer a muddled mess in a foreign language, but a tender, loving plea from a wife to a husband. I saw repeated phrases, difficult words decoded and dynamics that enabled me to participate in this piece and begin to sing. My voice teacher tested my ability to sing this. We worked on the rough spots. She tested again. We worked. I am now motivated to learn this song. It is a challenge!

So, what strategy taps into that motivation? Well, it’s different for everyone, but I have found a very effective strategy to being motivated to learn is to see some results immediately. Switch up that learning algorithm. Instead of lecture and reading first, take a test first, then practice what you don’t know, then read or listen to the lecture in context. Have you ever been halfway through a novel and had to go back and reread the beginning, because you had no context for what you were reading when you started? Yeah. Me too. Agatha Christie is really good for front-loading the story with many important clues you will need to know later. And that’s the way it is for lectures and reading for me. Lectures and reading load up on clues you will need to know later, but without context, nothing seems important.¬†Go ahead and give a short lecture and a little reading, but give me a problem to solve or small project to complete to get me in the groove.

Fall Break is Here

Patio Garden

Patio Garden

If everything goes as planned, this is the last semester of school for my husband and me. If it doesn’t go as planned, we will have to repeat college algebra next semester. This is not a big deal, since we recently found out they won’t have a winter commencement this year. Cap and gowns are scheduled for next May. So, we would have to wait for that part anyway. Even so, who wants to repeat college algebra? I definitely do not. However, I did discover over the summer that I do very well with the math. I studied for a few weeks and retook the compass test, doubling what I needed to get to pass out of refresher courses on beginning and intermediate algebra. Those options are available even after a student has started college. My husband took one of those early on and then retook the compass test. While he was taking that class, I peeked in to see how it was going. We learned a lot about how to tackle those subjects that seem to get away from us. It happens to everyone who ever went to school. We lose track of a subject and assume we are “bad at math” or “don’t like history”. Is it true?

In the beginning algebra class, concepts are broken down into very small pieces. Khan Academy uses this same technique. Each component is broken down so small, that I have often worked on concepts ahead of my skill level in Khan Academy, because the small area I’m working on is one small piece of a larger skill. This is the way it is with everything, but we often don’t realize it when we are plodding along through an unfamiliar or difficult subject. If we have to learn too many new terms or concepts at once to tack one lesson, it won’t be long before we give up and say, “I’m just not good at this”. Wrong! Our short term memory is very limited. We can take in maybe 10 new pieces of information, but on average, 7 is about it. 7 or 10, either way, we have to plant those seeds in the long-term memory.

I wrote the other day of my efforts to access my long-term memory and pair it with my new music lessons. This week, I’m taking the time to go back and review, placing concepts and assignments into organized areas of my long-term memory, so that I can perform well for the rest of the semester. For me, the key to doing this is organization. I am not at all naturally organized, but I require some kind of coherent organization that makes sense to me and the way my mind works. I recently finished an art journal project that I started 2 1/2 years ago. I took a composition notebook with graph paper pages and started drawing and writing, cutting and pasting things into this notebook. It is now completely full and fat. I showed my youngest son and said, “This is my brain. This is the way my mind is organized.” He said he wished his was organized that way. I asked him to draw a picture for me of how his is organized, and he a drew a grid with neatly arranged blocks and each one containing neatly arranged files or more boxes. I loved it. I wanted all of my cabinets and closets to look like that. ūüėČ

So, this week, fall break, no vacation. Not this time. Only 8 more weeks of school. We can do it.

Blogtober 7th – Lake Baikal

1b - Baikal SealLake Baikal is located in eastern Siberia. Yep, that’s Russia. The really cold part. I was fascinated with the details of this lake and found them compelling enough to encourage me to visit. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I was telling my parents about this lake over the weekend and I said, “I read it doesn’t reach much over 50 degrees ever, but I read that there are people who live there. The website I read said that little old ladies in babushkas stand out by the road selling smoked fish.” My mom said, “That sounds like a place dad would want to go!” I said, “I know! I immediately decided dad and I need to take a field trip there.”

Here are some of the facts:

– Deepest lake in the world 1632m deep

– On a good day, lake is so clear you can see up to 40m deep

-1/5 of all fresh water in world here, largest location of fresh water

-640 km long containing 27 islands, most uninhabited

-More than half the species here are unique to this lake

-More than 300 streams and rivers flow in, but only one outlet (Angara)

– For 5 months of the year, the lake is covered by meters of ice

– Some fish live a mile below the surface and are well adapted to the pressure, but they would explode if brought to the surface

-Out of all the animals, scientist are most interested in the fresh water seals. They haven’t determined how they got here…;-)

lakebaikal banner

More pics at arkive.org and more info at lakebaikal.org

Blogtober 3rd – Ice

Birthday Canyon, Greenland ice sheet

This last month, Mark and I had a lot of interesting discussions in the studying of sea ice, glaciers and climate change. My family and I watched the NOVA film, Extreme Ice together and I have looked up several articles related to glacier melt. We are also taking a Geography class at this time and we were reading about the glacier melt in the Andes mountains as well. Everything seems to be fitting together and provides a lot of crossover material. This blog post is the result of some research I did for a Geology assignment.

In our class supplemental materials, I took a look at this article “Sea Ice and Heat: A Vicious Cycle”. I thought it was interesting that the author of the article said that melting sea ice doesn’t cause the sea level to rise. I didn’t know this. It’s an interesting point after the NOVA movie made a great deal of fuss¬†over sea-level rise related to¬†glacier¬†melt. Land glaciers are not as susceptible to melting as sea ice. ¬†So, even though sea ice doesn’t cause sea levels to rise, there has been much speculation and panic about this issue. Here is another quote from this article, which was written a year ago:¬†“there may be no more sea ice left in the Arctic Ocean during summer within the next few decades.”¬†This quote links to an article that makes this statement¬†“Most computer models of climate change indicate the ice could disappear in summer in 30 to 40 years, said Lars-Otto Reiersen, head of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. ¬†“But there are models that indicate 2015 as an extreme,” he said.¬†The concentrated reading on this subject I have done this month for 2 different classes has revealed a consistent theme in common, and that is that climate patterns and glacier melt are “poorly understood”. I read and heard this phrase or variations of it repeated by scientists when explaining what we know and what we don’t know. Even without this admission, the reality that we simply don’t know enough to make catastrophic predictions was apparent in these articles

1. Global Cooling: Record Return of Arctic Ice Cap as it Grows By 60% in a Year by David Rose, Mail Online

2. The Himalayas and Nearby Peaks Have Lost No Ice in Past 10 Years, Study Shows by Damian Carrington, The Guardian

3. Atlantic Hurricane Season: A Record Breaking Dud? by Tom Brown, Reuters

In the first article, the revelation of the return of a million miles of sea ice has delayed the release of a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was set to once again blame climate change and ice melt on manmade factors. The predicitions themselves affect debate and how nations spend their limited resources:

The disclosure comes 11 months after The Mail on Sunday triggered intense political and scientific debate by revealing that global warming has ‚Äėpaused‚Äô since the beginning of 1997 ‚Äď an event that the computer models used by climate experts failed to predict.

In March, this newspaper further revealed that temperatures are about to drop below the level that the models forecast with ‚Äė90 per cent certainty‚Äô.

The pause ‚Äď which has now been accepted as real by every major climate research centre ‚Äď is important, because¬†the models‚Äô predictions of ever-increasing global temperatures have made many of the world‚Äôs economies divert billions of pounds into ‚Äėgreen‚Äô measures to counter¬† climate change.

Those predictions now appear gravely flawed.

In the second article, the zero net loss of Himalayan ice in a ten year period, was very unexpected:

“The world’s greatest snow-capped peaks, which run in a chain from the Himalayas to Tian Shan on the border of China and Kyrgyzstan, have lost no ice over the last decade, new research shows.

The discovery has stunned scientists, who had believed that around 50bn tonnes of meltwater were being shed each year and not being replaced by new snowfall.”

Finally,the 3rd article shows again how  predictions impact the way nations live and spend resources :

“Seven named storms have been spawned by the 2013 season so far, including Fernand, which killed 13 people in central¬†Mexico¬†late last month.

Most of the storms have been small, weak systems, however, proving an embarrassment to experts who had predicted an active season inreports that are eagerly awaited by the insurance and energy industries as well as many coastal homeowners.”

¬†The IPCC ¬†has most recently released their updated report and chose again to ignore the evidence of NO warming and the blatant error in their prediction models. See this article at the financial post for a journalists suggestion on what to do with the IPCC. This issue has abandoned the realm of science and is largely emotional, most definitely political and ultimately financial. Following the money is the most scientific response when reading mainstream reporting on climate change. I’m afraid our textbook is shorter on data than it is long on speculation and assumption. Here’s an example of a most alarmingsection on climate change from our class textbook illustrating this principle of short on data and long on speculation is here: “If the heat trapped by carbon dioxide were proportional to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, the increased carbon dioxide would by now have caused sharply increased greenhouse-effect heating of the earth’s atmosphere. ¬†So far, the actual temperature rise has been much more moderate; the earth’s climate system is more complex…Altogether, since the start of the Industrial AGe, global surface temperature has risen about 1.5 degrees F. Trivial as this may sound, it is already having obvious and profound impacts in many parts of the world…Early discussions of climate change related to increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere tended to focus heavily on the prospect of global warming and the resultant melting of earth’s reserves of ice, especially the remaining ice sheets. IF all the ice melted, sea level could rise by over 75 meters from the added water along leaving aside thermal expansion of the water. About 20% of the world’s land area would be submerged. ¬†Many millions, perhaps billions, of people now living in coastal or low-lying areas would be displaced, since a large fraction of major population centers grew up along coastlines and rivers. ¬†The Statue of Liberty would be up to her neck in water.” ¬†

In conclusion, I like to read data. I am drawn to the actual numbers and methods for obtaining those numbers. Emotional language and catastrophic predictions signal to me a need to carefully analyze the data. The articles above illustrate that prediction methods, computer models and “historic” tracking need to be reevaluated. I noticed that there was still some predicting taking place even after the reality and embarrassment of previous prediction failure. As a science student, I’m content to know that certain things are poorly understood. There is no embarrassment in simply stating what we know and what has already taken place, but when we are affecting the way nations use their resources to take care of their populations, we must be very careful how we use this data.

Two more weeks


I completed my Power Point presentation for history on European immigration to the US in the 20th century. It was graded yesterday and I received 100%. When I chose the topic, I knew I would have most of what I needed to complete it, as I had pictures and documents from family tree research, and of course I had my Dad available to provide the personal stories. What I have learned this last semester is a confirmation to me that my instincts in high school about the state of education and direction it was headed were correct.

From the earliest grades I enjoyed school and learning. I graduated from 8th grade as an A student. I took every advanced class available to me in middle school, except for algebra, as they were limiting the class to the highest achievers and I missed the boat by 1 point on my entrance exam in 7th grade. I actually scored high enough to get into the class, but from our homeroom, only 2 students were permitted and I came in 3rd. I didn’t take it well, and I suppose that would be the beginning of my slide away from caring.

We all experience¬†discouragement from teachers and peers¬†at one time or another and in differing degrees.¬† I should have just applied myself to my studies, learning on my own, but it was also a time of social intimidation that sapped my motivation.The first path blocked to me at the time was athletics. It seems the window of opportunity for that was the 6th grade girl’s basketball team. I couldn’t join that year, and so the coach didn’t know me or notice me at tryouts the next two years. Maybe he would have noticed if I had been one of his science students , which I wasn’t. This¬†also seemed to block me from help and encouragement in science. My projects at the science fairs were good, but there was always a crowd around Mr. J’s students’ tables. I stood alone. He was a jovial guy who talked up his students and everyone listened and followed and he was in charge of planning the science fairs.¬† So, in science and math at this formative time, I was a party of one.

My favorite teachers tended to be¬†the English, German and history teachers, in middle school. They were attentive and complimentary and encouraging and funny. It seemed like they were all those things to everyone, but who knows? Maybe they were just those things to me…and the athletic, science and math kids lost out. I can’t know the answer, but it doesn’t matter because the point is that this is the point. Why the false divisions between subjects? Is science really separate from art? or math? or English? or history? How important is language when communicating scientific concepts and data? Is it not imperative? It is. Look and listen to conversations and debates and consider how the separation of academic subjects has impacted our culture. Is one subject given precedence over another? Is one considered more truthful than another? What is being said and who is saying it?

I realized something was or had gone wrong with education¬†when I got to¬†high school. There were too many teachers who were striving for popularity among the students. It began with my English teacher. English was always my strongest area, but I couldn’t get anywhere with this teacher. I could not manage more than a C in her class. I talked to my parents about it and my mom at first was skeptical. I had just started high school… Give it more time…Talk to the teacher and I did all of these things, but I was 14 and growing more and more aggravated every day. At open house, about 6 weeks into the semester, my parents went to the school and got to experience first hand what I had been explaining. “Your English teacher is …”¬† Yes. I know. She had a daughter who was a senior and a popular cheerleader. The teacher was popular as well, with the seniors. She was less than impressed with the incoming freshman, of which I was one. She disliked my writing and reading material, and rather than guide or instruct, I received snarky red comments. If I didn’t make too many mistakes I would get “fine” or a check mark that I did the assignment. In order to find acceptable reading material, I would have to guess. <“Stephen King?” It depends. “On what?” Well, what do want to read? “The Stand?” No. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption?” No. “Salem’s Lot? Carrie?” Um. No. Maybe choose another author. “The Thorn Birds?” O…Kaaay. > My memory fails me. I may have gotten a ‘B’ on this paper. But I was really getting annoyed and on all of my creative writing, I chose horror as a genre or some other thing that I knew would make the teacher purse her lips and flare her nostrils. Did I mention I was 14?

My English teacher was not the only instructor that had a poor attitude toward our class and as I saw it,¬†they were¬†stealing my joy of learning and smearing my academic record, which up to that point was excellent. My history teacher seemed to¬†crab openly¬†about our class often. One day in particular she took us to the in-school National Honor Society induction ceremony and announced to us that we were going as part of history class that day¬†to show us what excellence we will NEVER achieve. There’s more of this mess that went on right up through my senior year. There were some good teachers and I’m sure they could write an article (or a book!) on the mess they had to deal with in regards to the students. I remember one day my choir teacher’s husband, who was the physics teacher, arrived in his classroom and found snow in all of his drawers as a prank. He said that would be his last year teaching and he walked out. That made an impression on me.

There were many incidents and opportunities lost that contributed to my confusion and dismantling of my education in high school, but I came out above average in the end. However, what is above average if the standard is Swiss cheese of an education? I left high school with a skewed and incomplete view of education and what I was going to do with it in college and beyond. It has taken me years to untwist the slinky of learning I came away with and there are more than a few kinks left over, but finishing up these last weeks of school, I realize this experience is smoothing and incorporating all of my collective learning, filling in the gaps and resulting in satisfaction that I have a firm grasp on what I should have understood 25 years ago.

I will talk more on this next time…

Summer’s End

Yep, summer ends in July. It’s back to school. As we prepare for the start on Wednesday, August 1st, we’re practicing our schedule. I remember reading somewhere about a military school that had it’s students start their school schedule a month early to practice all of the routines before everything went ‘live’. I thought this was genius, but I’ve never been able to incorporate it. We’re trying it now. The first day seems to always get off to a late start. I didn’t sleep well as usual, but we got started anyway and did everything we could work into the morning. I saw on Pinterest that a friend had created boards to fill with the materials she was using for each child’s schoolyear. I praised her idea and started my own. We use a wide variety of materials and media that pop up at the last minute to learn and explore, so my board is going to be less of a wishlist or lesson plan and more of a chronicle of what was already done and used. The photo above shows one of our routines that we started last semester. I only have one student at home now and he is shy, so it’s the perfect opportunity to learn how to speak in front of others since he only has to speak in front of me. He gives a short presentation each morning of anything he wants to present. I also present and during the presentation, the listener(s) put away all electronics and any other things that may distract and give the presenter his/her full attention. This morning he showed off his new iPad and demonstrated the features of an application he recently downloaded. I then did a presentation on one of the books I’m currently reading. I’ve never read Moby Dick and I added it to my summer reading list this year. I demonstrated how I am reading it on Kindle on my iPhone and that I have it included in my Goodreads.com list of books. I explained details about the book such as number of pages, the author, a synopsis and I read an excerpt. Derek smirked through the whole presentation and noted at the end that he has heard of many references to this book and never knew what they were about until now. I think this is going to be one of my favorite routines in our day.