More proof that teachers are out to destroy you

I’m always a fan of writing that maligns the modern education system and exposes the stern teachers that lorded over our childhoods as bitter, asexual frauds. A recent New York Times article entitled Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits argues that the “classic” styles of studying promoted by teachers and their ilk do not map to what we know about how the brain learns.

But individual learning is another matter, and psychologists have discovered that some of the most hallowed advice on study habits is flat wrong. For instance, many study skills courses insist that students find a specific place, a study room or a quiet corner of the library, to take their work. The research finds just the opposite. In one classic 1978 experiment, psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

The brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time, the authors say, regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious. It colors the terms of the Versailles Treaty with the wasted fluorescent glow of the dorm study room, say; or the elements of the Marshall Plan with the jade-curtain shade of the willow tree in the backyard. Forcing the brain to make multiple associations with the same material may, in effect, give that information more neural scaffolding.

I found the following interesting…

In an experiment published last month in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers found that college students and adults of retirement age were better able to distinguish the painting styles of 12 unfamiliar artists after viewing mixed collections (assortments, including works from all 12) than after viewing a dozen works from one artist, all together, then moving on to the next painter.

The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College and the lead author of the study. “What seems to be happening in this case is that the brain is picking up deeper patterns when seeing assortments of paintings; it’s picking up what’s similar and what’s different about them,” often subconsciously.

This resonates, because just a couple nights ago I was trolling around on youtube, first watching a pop music video, then some music by Beethoven, and finally a performance by jazz pianist Bill Evans. I felt slightly guilty because it seemed like I was cherry picking music of different styles, without digging deep into any one genre. But I started to find myself comparing the different forms of music, and those comparisons generated insight.

Obviously this methodology will only work for someone with profound cognitive skills, such as myself, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

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