The text: Sunday, October 30th, 2011: chat with my friend J.
The media: instant message conversation
The thought: Retaining what we read and what we think about is a different process for everyone. How can we translate input to intellectual gain?
The lesson: “Reading empiricists” do what works for them — experiencing what they read, writing about it, discussing it, making connections to reality that will hold the new knowledge in their consciousness.
I will tell you a brief story about the name of this blog. I’ve always had a keen interest in wordplay, word puzzles and sound symbolism, and I would spend hours listing clever, lyrical names for story characters, websites, pets, children and my own online screen names. At first glance, Readtainment may appear to be a simple portmanteau of “read” and “entertainment.” This is partly true, but it also plays on the word “retain,” because through this project I want to better retain the things I read, the entertainment I consume.
Here’s an excerpt of the conversation I had about knowledge retention with my friend J, one who has always impressed me with her sharp memory, ability to learn efficiently and connect her diverse knowledge across fields.
me: i’m curious – how do you normally treat your reading? is it more of an entertainment pursuit, or is the nonfiction something you try to retain for academic/intellectual purposes?
J: i guess impulsively, i just read books that i open and want to keep reading haha
J: hmm. i think pretty much everything i encounter goes into my brain for real unless i intentionally spit it back out, like transformers 3
me: that’s a good skill, being able to retain things
me: how do you make sure they stay there – do you use it all later somehow? in conversation or something like that?
J: well, i definitely forget stuff…
J: yes, i do use most of it in conversation, but the second thing is that if something i read really affects me i try to experience it in my life as well
J: i’m like a reading empiricist … i have to try stuff!
me: interesting – examples?
J: well i guess like, i’m not content to just read about meditation, i want to actually try meditation, for example… but it really just affects everything, i think it’s like when i was a kid and i would eg read ‘bridge to teribithia,’ in which characters enjoyed racing at lunch time, and then spend the whole summer ‘racing’ in my backyard. i just didn’t grow out of that, so…
J: or like, senior year, i was super into korean literature and history suddenly and read everything in our library, and then i went to korea
The reason I stress the importance of retaining what we read and learn is that I worry about the state of education in many modern countries. High values on rote memorization and statistics, rather than the process of learning, internalizing and synthesizing, often lead students down a path of one-time memorization, also causing teachers to “teach to the test.” Government education standards, although surely well-meaning at their core, enable this skewed emphasis on formulaic “learning.” Many neoliberal education movements defy this oligarchic approach; see this ZenHabits.net post on “unschooling.”
The more I think about it, the more I believe learning sticks much better when students follow their own interests, investigating topics and creating their own “final projects,” so to speak. True, maybe trend-obsessed youngsters aren’t the best designers of their own academic pursuits. But The Linguist agrees with me: self-study beats the classroom.
So I am beginning to think, as an applicant to teaching credentialing programs I might add, that rather than being dispensers of information and tests, teachers should be more like mentors or coaches. Our children should be learning how to critically think for themselves, solve problems and pursue interests that will lead them to life knowledge. We may believe that basic math, history etc. are nonnegotiable in their education; it’s true that society won’t stop knowing about these things, so our students shouldn’t either. But subjecting them to test questions they won’t remember in ten years is not the way to guide them.
J gave this advice, on choosing what material to read when we are interested in a topic: “Just browse and only take what you really like!” This way learning will never be dull, never painful. True, we must attune ourselves to how we enrich the learning process, because reading one book we really like won’t be enough. But that’s where teachers come in.
And after a certain age, with enough good role models, we can be our own teachers. It’s a matter of organizing our own education.
Me? Well, there is a lot I want to learn, but too much to invest in at once. As advocated on ZenHabits.net, I may turn to “single-tasking” — devoting myself to a single pursuit before moving on to the next. On my list are: improving my guitar playing, learning Japanese, learning Spanish, running, regaining my linguistics knowledge (some of it originally learned in a standards-based model!), researching various topics through multimedia. A suggestion for myself and you: choose one pursuit per week, even per month. Immerse yourself in it, in your normal free time. Have a backup for when you’re just sick of the first pursuit. See where the library, where the internet and where your friends’ conversations take you.