Remembering to remember

I often struggle to remember the names of my students, especially in large classes. Like most people, using my visual and spacial memory helps. Classes with fixed seating arrangements are out because you want students to mix partners. Attendance lists are frowned upon at the institution I am currently working for.  This had me in a bind.

So Khushi suggested something that I have in fact done: Students formed study groups, made name tags, and I took a photograph of each group holding up their tags. Looking through the pictures I now see myself walking around the room that day to where they were sitting that lesson. Finally, names are starting to stick.

Josua Foer summarizes the technique of the Memory Palace, arguably the best way to memorize individual, unconnected items in sequence by connecting and associating them with 3-D navigation through an imagined scene. He mentions that ancient orators used this topographical technique to learn their speeches by heart, and points to the connection between “topic” (and topic sentence) and “topos”, or place.

The entire art of memorizing is to make items meaningfully connected. But more still, as Foer says about the techniques of the Memory Palace, “They work because they make you work. They force a kind of depth of processing, a kind of mindfulness, that most of us don’t normally walk around exercising. There are no shortcuts.”

Finally, he points out the essential importance of memory,  namely that our lives are the sum of our memories. So we need to process deeply. We must remember to remember.

What psychologists are saying about how technology affects us

Speaking about “The Secret Powers of Time”, Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo (famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment) explains how various perspectives of time – past, present and future – influence our actions and relationships. There are six main orientation time zones:

  • Past: Past positive (nostalgic), or past negative (regretful)
  • Present: hedonistic (seeking pleasure, knowledge), or fatalistic (“It doesn’t pay to plan”)
  • Future: resist temptation for future benefit, or geared to reward after death (both build on trust or expectation)

Catholic nations are more present and past oriented, while Protestant nations are more future orientated.

He says we are going through a time revolution. Children are naturally and essentially hedonistic and present-oriented. What schools around the globe do is to give them a past or future orientation (depending on the predominant culture). Now computer games are increasingly keeping children in their present-hedonistic state, rewiring their brains, so they will be bored in the analogue classroom. Games are indeed addictive, and “all addictions are addictions of present hedonism.” School and education is all about delaying gratification, but present oriented kids will not relate the messages to themselves and their future. I hear echos of my father talking about “instant gratification” as a key element of hedonistic pop culture back when I was a teen in the 1970s.

Philip Zimbardo (2008): The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.


Sherry Turkle, professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, writes that mobile devices are becoming the vehicle for intimate relationships, as robots take on responsibilities previously born by friends and family. The instantaneous, engineered response is in fact allowing us to flee from conversation, which takes effort in terms of time and patience, and hence requires us to build those essential skills.

“Most of all, we need to remember — in between texts and e-mails and Facebook posts — to listen to one another, even to the boring bits, because it is often in unedited moments, moments in which we hesitate and stutter and go silent, that we reveal ourselves to one another.”
Sherry Turkle: The Flight From Conversation, NYT April 21, 2012

Sherry Turkle (2011): Alone Together. Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books.

Goldie Hawn’s MindUP

I find NLP and yoga are great techniques to stay grounded and to be able to tap into your inner resources. In the process of rethinking how these practices feed mindfulness and connect to learning, I’ve stumbled upon a great project: Goldie Hawn, is into strengthening focus in school children, running a project that came out of her experience of post-9/11 America, as attention-deficit issues, depression and over-medication were noted to be on the rise. She’s created an agenda dedicated to bringing children happiness, enlisting the help of neuroscientists and positive psychologists to create a school curriculum called MindUp, helping children get in touch with their feelings, aiming to create a classroom of happiness. It’s a 15-lesson curriculum, including focussed breathing, attention, relaxation and awareness-building. Children are taught how their brain works; that when their mid-brain is overactive, their prefrontal cortex (the executive function) is blocked off and dims. In order to open up for learning, children need to be able to quiet their mind, which controls their cortisol levels, and they learn the necessary techniques to do so. In addition, they are taught empathy and pro-social behavior, which helps them balance their emotions and find their place in the universe. They learn that acts of kindness cause their system to emit dopamine, making them feel good. So overall, then, the curriculum entails:

  • Focus: 1. How Our Brains Work; 2. Attention; 3. Awareness: The Core Practice
  • Senses: 4. Listening; 5. Seeing; 6. Smelling; 7. Tasting; 8. Movement I; 9. Movement II
  • Attitude: 10. Perspective Taking; 11. Choosing Optimism; 12. Savoring Happy Experiences
  • Mindful action: 13. Acting with Gratitude; 14. Acts of Kindness; 15. Community Action

She and Dr. Dan Siegel, who has developed a concept of self-understanding and tuning into others that he calls “mindsight“, presented the program at TEDMED 2009. For more, see the MindPU site.

Recent write-up in the Huffington Post

Published materials for the curriculum

Goodbye to “one best way” solutions

Marvin Minsky of the MIT Media Lab and MIT AI Lab has a very pragmatic approach to robotic engineering and artificial intelligence based on systematic redundancy. “I’ve never seen any mechanical device that actually shows any thought about reliability,” he says (4:40) and goes on to explain his approach (from 4:45):

“My theory is that there are lots of theories about how the brain works. And you can see some guy saying “I have a neural net theory about how to make a machine that’ll learn anything.” And this one has a statistical theory of how to learn anything. And this one says “I’m going to make a simulated evolution.” And this one says “I’m going to make a rule-based system.” And there are about 10 movements in AI that, since about 1980, have gotten some good results, but stopped making progress. And the reason is, everyone’s trying to find the best way to do something.

Well, what you want is something like this” (he shows his mechanical leg model) “where you have six pretty good ways of doing something, and if some of them don’t work maybe the other ones will.

… To me, we’re just big gadgets, and made out of lots of little gadgets. And the important thing is to figure out how to put them all together, not holistically, but reductionalistically, so that if anything breaks, something else will take over.”

Now, that’s a widely applicable approach, I’d say.

Say, Mr Minsky, are you the original Q?

(Thanks, Christian)