Let's Fix Education / by Bruce Deitrick Price

Episode 10, Sept. 1: Max Efficiency: How To Study A New Subject

September 01, 2021 Bruce Deitrick Price
Let's Fix Education / by Bruce Deitrick Price
Episode 10, Sept. 1: Max Efficiency: How To Study A New Subject
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Episode 10, Sept. 1:   Max Efficiency: How To Study A New Subject

Some suggestions on how to make education more efficient.

School is starting. There are many clever young people, probably on a trajectory toward college, who will find value in these ideas. Weird but true, I don't think the Education Establishment thinks in terms of efficiency. If we would let them, they will spend a whole year on global warming and critical race theory, even if the ostensible subject is literature, math, geography, etc.

I think it's good for students to  know there is something of an adversarial relationship between them and the public school system. Administrators tend to be satisfied with mediocrity. So let's teach the students to think independently and to  fend for themselves at a high level.


 Recurring themes. Big ideas. Unifying concepts.

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Episode 10   Max Efficiency: How To Study A New Subject (Sept. 1, 2021

Okay, here's the usual pattern. You hear about something that strikes you as fascinating. It can be anything. You want to learn everything there is to know about it. What's the next step?

Typically, you go to the bookstore or library, and you find what seems to be an authoritative text. It’s a popular choice, judging by book sales, reviews, Amazon comments, suggestions from friends, or any other method. Now you’ve got a 350-page book about Witchcraft in Medieval Europe. Or whatever.

You read 50 or 100 pages over a week or two. Little by little you are overwhelmed by all the details. You still don't have a sense of the whole subject. Your enthusiasm slacks. The book is on your table for a month without further attention. Alas, you never finish the book.

This approach, if you see it through and keep going with other books, is a scholarly way of doing things. But for ordinary human beings, younger students, and so forth, this method is faulty primarily because almost nobody ever finishes the first book.

The second problem, and we see this throughout education, is that while the author knows everything, the student knows almost nothing. You need to know some basics, some context, before you're comfortable learning a lot of new stuff. For example, what was happening in witchcraft during the late Roman period or the 15th-century in Germany? What cities and countries are we talking about here? Is the author you have selected pitching some particular theory? You need to know this up front.

Mainly, you don't want too much information at the beginning. In fact, you want the minimal amount of information, just enough to see the road ahead and to keep going.

So I worked out a method, refined over several years in high school, where I would start with the smallest possible point of entry. For many topics, that would be any big dictionary. There you get the 10 to 20 word version of what you are interested in. Don't underestimate the value of a good dictionary. Smart professionals labor to explain big subjects in tiny paragraphs. These will make your life easier.

Think of some big arcane things like Buddhism, existentialism, mitochondria, trigonometry, celestial navigation, the Hatch Act. Seriously, would you want more than 20 words about any of those topics? Not if you're in a hurry. You can start more quickly if you spend a minute absorbing the condensed version of everything. Understand those 20 words, debate their meaning with friends, write down questions you still can't answer, and try to predict what the next longer version will reveal.

The next step is a children's encyclopedia or a desk encyclopedia for adults. Ideally you find a 100-word version of your subject, or 200 or 300 words.

When I was a teenager, I had a love affair with the Columbia Desk Encyclopedia, a big blue volume that rarely disappointed. Usually, I got a very suave introduction to any subject. I went from knowing nothing to knowing quite a bit, all in a few minutes.

The next step is a good medium level encyclopedia like Compton’s, Americana, World Book, anything aimed at a general market. Each encyclopedia might take a different slant, and that's very useful. Now you know enough to recognize divergent perspectives. You have the intellectual equivalent of stereoscopic vision.

The next step is a serious source such as the Britannica used to be or perhaps an entry from Wikipedia (especially on uncontroversial subjects). Please note that everything mentioned so far you can probably do in less than an hour. You're already an expert. But the same amount of time spent on the first approach will find you still in the first chapter.

Now you're ready for a book but not the leading academic book. No, you want a popular book for a wide public, for smart adults or smart teenagers. Ideally you find a book with 50 to 100 pages and you read it right through.

Now you can look for the most popular book on the subject. You very nearly have a college-level understanding of your subject and the process took only a few weeks.

I'm predisposed to like this method because it echoes what I believe should be the universal approach to everything. Start with the simplest smallest parts and build systematically towards mastery of any topic.

Most of the sins committed by our Education Establishment occur when they present stuff in a bad sequence, with too much detail about the wrong parts.

My sense of K-12 is that the people in charge are beyond incompetent. They are not seriously trying to teach subjects. They don't mind if you have a shallow jumbled impression of the subject. You may think you have studied a topic, your parents may think you have studied the topic. But as you do your own research, you'll find you were taught very little. Don't hesitate to start over with a dictionary.

My theory in just about every school situation is that you want to start with the smallest pieces of knowledge. If you think about how people best learn reading and other subjects, it’s still the same thing. You start with individual letters and memorize the sounds represented by the letters. Then you go to the blends and then you are reading. In math, stay for a few weeks with the simplest examples of addition and subtraction. You'll quickly have a good foundation. Give children a collection of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, and let them make change on a dollar. These are exactly the problems we have to solve every day. So this is real-world arithmetic, precisely the sort that education professors try to avoid.

It's worrisome to watch throughout K-12 how the professors have a genius for mangling and muddling everything. I'm sure education is sufficiently practical and testable for sincere educatorsto figure out which methods work best. But our experts don't bother. That's why they’ll use non-phonics instead of phonics. That's why they're promoting reform math or common core math. In a sentence, they like to keep the methods disorganized and the children confused.

If you want humans to learn anything, start them with simple versions of the activity. You don't encumber the activity with jargon or weird sideways approaches. No, the children should work with actual realistic problems that are at the simplest level. One plus two equals three, that's the paradigm. Then try two plus one.

The dividend here is that the slower students will be carried along with the rest of the class. I worry sometimes that our professors want to avoid this possibility so they jumble up everything and lose as many people as possible.

I am very cynical about our Education Establishment. But I think they have earned it again and again.

This podcast describes a shrewd approach to learning quickly. You’ll advance academically, and you'll be defended against the bad teaching so common in our public schools.

The goal is to study smart. To learn more in less time. 

Let's start by being realistic. If you're a student in a public school, a lot of what's going on around you is aimed at numbing you and dumbing you. Every index of academic achievement will slowly drift downward. That's by design, so you have to resist.