I just picked up Mind Performance Hacks. It looks promising, so far, although I’ve just skimmed it. I did see one section, however, that concerned me. It was the section on asking questions.
The author mentions that the construction of conceptual units is the goal of learning. He provides anecdotal evidence (from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!) about the failure to ask questions in an educational scenario. He properly refers to the data processing limit of retaining 5-11 individual items (sometimes called the Crow Epistemology, referring to the fact that birds can deal with individual numbers up to a certain point, after which individual numbers become “several”) at one time in short-term memory. And then he suggests that the problem is a failure, mostly through fear, of asking questions.
And there is my problem. If you happen to be in second grade, you might still be fortunate enough to be dealing with simple, self-contained concepts that can be constructed merely by moving items from short-term directly into long-term memory. Those of us who have lost our fear of cooties, however, have a little more work to do.
All those concepts you’re building don’t exist in a vacuum. Everyone has a framework in which they are constructed, not just of other concepts, results of evaluation and classification, description of concept relationships and causal effects, but even the fundamental understanding of the relationship between reality and the concepts that represent it. Fitting a new idea into all that takes good technique tailored to individual learning style, practice, persistence, constant effort (so as not to have failed to incorporate new information upon which subsequent information is dependent), a great ability to evaluate the nature of an item (e.g., is it an abstract applicable to a class of items?), foresight (is that the complete set of information?), and a willingness to re-evaluate and correct old knowledge.
Ignoring all the other things that the public school system fails entirely to teach, even in an ideal situation, this process takes time. So if you want a person to be able to reasonably ask questions during a presentation, a presenter of information has to facilitate the process.
For instance, plan on two sessions … three would be better, if at all possible. For each session, first present an outline of what will be discussed. This is not an outline to guide your presentation … this is a structure the audience will use to organize the information, determine if there is no more information coming on a particular item (in which case it’s time to ask questions of perceived deficiencies), understand internal and external relationships, etc. Also, define the scope of the discussion.
The first session should present the basic concept or set of concepts. Be thorough. Point out items that can be considered classifications and properties of classes, abstractions, assumptions, etc. Now stop. Integration takes time, and if you keep going you’ll trample on the stuff they’re trying to process, or they’ll dump it all in an effort to keep listening to new information (those who are well trained may be able to continue this process later from their notes.)
The second session should be a very quick recap of the previous session (to drag it all back into memory … information retrieval takes practice, and you should give them at least one effort to do so before they hit testing time, or whatever the equivalent might be in other situations) and a call for questions. No more questions? Start the second session … relationships to other concepts, implications, causality, etc. Don’t do abstractions here … associate your information as tightly to concretes as possible. This is the time in, for example, physics class, to perform your demonstrations. Now stop. Give them a break. Come back, either later in this session or in a third session and, again, review and ask for questions.
This is what the mind needs.
There are time constraints. There are subject constraints (such as pumping as much information into teenage skulls as possible in 9 months.) There are training and conceptual precedence limitations on the part of students and audience. But the principles still hold. So, evaluate what the constraints will be on a presentation and audience, and figure out how to achieve the same effect with your limitations.
Be sure to think outside the box. For example, I was speaking with a Chinese teacher recently. She told me that the Chinese teachers go to each student’s house in the summer to talk with the student and parents in order to learn and evaluate, among other things, what they’ve done over the summer. She then tailors her lessons accordingly. I don’t know of any American teacher who would do such a thing, even if the government permitted her to alter her lesson plans significantly. An analogous situation … if you have to make a presentation to a bunch of programmers in your office, you might consider setting aside 5 minutes for each developer ahead of time to get an idea of their current understanding of the subject.
What else could you do? How would you apply these techniques to self-directed learning?