Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Isn't Common Core Working?

First, the facts: Common Core (CC) is not working, as measured by its own standards and metrics. After seven years of implementation in 40 states, Associated Press now summarizes the National Report Card that reveals that two-thirds of graduating seniors are not ready for college. Seventy-five percent failed the math test and sixty-three percent failed the reading test.

These dismal findings are no surprise, as we get similar reports every year during CC's reign. Everybody seems to have an explanation, which too often is an excuse—like we don't spend enough money on schools. That conclusion is easily refuted by extensive documentation, and I won't take the time to rehash that evidence here. But let's look at some possible explanations that are widely shared and perhaps real:

Teaching to the Test. The problem with CC is not so much with its standards but with the testing regimen that has been captured by two publishing houses. The federal government education bureaucrats ("educrats") have turned schools into test factories for CC-based testing. In other areas of politics, we would call that crony capitalism. The focus of teaching in many schools is to teach students to pass multiple-choice tests limited to specific standards in only two areas, math and English. In the old days, we practiced learning the multiplication tables; today, kids practice taking tests—again and again. If teaching to the test worked, maybe we could endorse the practice. But it clearly doesn't work. Why? This leads us to other explanations.

One Size Fits All. Federal educrats treat our hugely heterogeneous population as if it were homogeneous. If you live in the Southwest, you know that this part of the country is largely Mexicanized, with huge numbers of students who don't even speak English. The country as a whole is a mixture of suburbia and ghettos. The government promotes multi-culturalism, while at the same time demands that our schools produce a cookie-cutter product. We have Red and Blue states that seem to be moving further apart. We have growing disparities in personal wealth, aspirations, and family structure. It is a fool's errand to think that one size fits all is the remedy for education.

Political Correctness. CC is notorious for its PC curriculum, which contains significant elements of anti-Americanism and leftist doctrine that have little to do with education. Moreover, for many students, such PC is demotivating. Kids do have a capacity for spotting when they are being manipulated by adults. They do not like it, especially when it is imposed in school.

State-centric versus Student-Centric Education. Students live in a different mental world than adults. Our standards of learning are not inherently theirs. Whatever it is we say they must learn has to be put in a context that is meaningful to them. Math, for example, taught as an isolated subject, has little attraction for most students, especially when the only purpose is to pass a federally mandated exam. However, when taught as a necessary component of a shop class or classes in other subjects, math acquires a relevance that even students can value. Language arts, when studied as an end itself, is hardly as motivating as when students learn it to accomplish their own purposes, like perhaps debating with peers, writing persuasive blogs and social media posts, or school publications. I think that educrats have forgotten what it is like to be a youngster.

Trashing Memorization. CC was designed to abandon the old emphasis on memorization and focus on teaching thinking skills. This is most evident in math instruction. Learning to think is of course admirable, but why then do we not see improvement on the tests designed to measure thinking skills? Do educrats not know that you think with what you know, and what you know is what you have memorized?

I have professor colleagues who criticize me for trying to be a "Memory Medic" and help students learn how to memorize more effectively. Teachers seem reluctant to teach memory skills, or maybe they don't know what the skills are. Even if teachers can teach such skills, their principals and superintendents set the demands that are focused on teaching to the test. Teaching learning skills these days is an alien concept.

What schools need to focus on is helping students to develop expertise in something. That may be in band, art, vocational classes, farm projects, or any area where skills are valued. CC does none of that. The real world needs and rewards expertise. Of course, experts can think well in their field of expertise. And why is that? They know their subject.

When a student memorizes information, she not only acquires subject-matter mastery but the personal knowledge of success. Nothing is more motivating than success. A student owns the success. Nobody can take that away. Federal exams remind students of their ignorance. And we expect that to be motivating?

When I went to school decades ago, school was fun, because I was learning cool stuff and nobody was on my back all year long to make the teacher and school to look good with my test scores. Today, a lot of kids hate school. I would too.

"Memory Medic" has three recent books on memory:

1. "Memory Power 101" (Skyhorse) - for a general audience at

2. "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine"- an inexpensive e-book for boomers and seniors in all formats at,

3. "Better Grades, Less Effort" - an inexpensive e-book for students at,

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The One Best Way to Remember Anything

As explained in my memory-improvement book, "Memory Power 101," the most powerful way to remember something is to construct a mental-image representation. All the memory books I have read make the same point. The professional memorizers, "memory athletes" who can memory the sequence of four shuffled decks of cards in five minutes, all use some form of mental imaging that converts each card into a mental-picture representation.

Now a recent experiment documents the power of mental images in a study involving seven experiments that compared memory accuracy with whether or not a drawing was made. College-student volunteers were asked to memorize a list of words, each of which was chosen to be easily drawn. Words were presented one at a time on a video monitor and students were randomly prompted to write the name of the object or make a drawing of it. Each word presentation was timed and a warning buzzer indicated it was time to stop and get ready for the next word display. At the end of the list, a two-minute filler task was presented wherein each student classified 60 sound tones, selected at random, in terms of whether the frequency was low, medium, or high. Then a surprise test was given wherein students were asked to verbally recall in one minute as many words as they could, in any order, whether written or drawn.

In the first two experiments students remembered about twice as many when a drawing representation had been made than when just the word had been written. Three other experiments demonstrated that drawing was more effective because the encoding was deeper. For example, one experiment was conducted like the first two, but included a third condition in which the subjects were to write a list of the physical characteristics of the word (for example, for apple, one might say red, round, tasty, chewy, etc.). This presumably provides a deeper level of encoding than just writing or
drawing the word. Results revealed that drawing was still more effective than either writing a list of attributes or writing the word.

Another highly important experiment was conducted that compared drawing and writing with just making a mental image without drawing it. Again, drawing produced the best results, although more words were remembered when mentally imaged than when written.

A follow-on experiment substituted an actual picture of the word instead of requiring the student to actively imagine an image. Here again, best results occurred with drawing, with seeing pictures being more effective than writing the word.

In a sixth experiment, drawing was still superior to writing even if the list of words was made longer or if the encoding time was reduced. In the last experiment, drawing was still beneficial in a way that could not be explained solely by the fact that drawings are more distinctive than writing a word.
The benefits of drawing were seen within and across individuals and across different conditions. The researchers concluded that drawing improves memory by encouraging a seamless integration of semantic, visual, and motor aspects of a memory trace. That makes sense to me.

The processes involved here that account for better memory are 1) elaborating the item to be remembered, 2) making a mental image of it or an alias for it, 3) the motor act of drawing the image, and 4) the reinforcing feedback of thinking about the drawing.

The implications of studies like this have enormous practical application for everyday needs to remember. The principle is that whenever you have something you need to remember, make a mental-image representation of it and then draw it. For example, if you have to remember somebody named "Mike" make a mental image of the person speaking into a microphone (mike). Then roughly draw Mike's main facial features alongside a microphone. There are all sorts of formal schemes for making mental images, even for numbers, as explained in my book. This present study indicates that the making of a mental image is powerfully reinforced when you try to draw it.

To some extent, this memory principle is used in elementary school, where drawing is a huge part of the curriculum. As students get older, teachers abandon drawing and usually so do the students. Perhaps educators need to revisit the idea that drawing has educational value at all grade levels.


Kluger, Jeffrey, (2016) Here's the memory trick that science says works. Time, April 22.

Wammes, Jeffrey D. et al. (2016. The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 69 (9), 1752-1776. DOI:10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Confused? Organize Your Information

We all think with ideas and information that we hold in working memory. Working memory is like a scratch pad with a succession of content on the pad that is streamed into the brain's thinking apparatus. What is held on the working memory scratch pad is either retrieved from memory or inserted from real-time experience (like what you are reading or hearing).

W. R. Klemm
Source: W. R. Klemm
So, how does organization apply? As the brain seeks information to put on the scratch pad, it has to know where it is. Thinking is slow at best and possibly incoherent if ideas and information are located in disorganized repositories (such as sticky notes, memos, documents located randomly in different places. How can anyone keep a stream of coherent thought going if there is constant interruption trying to find the note or document one needs at each stage of thinking?
The other thing is that working memory has very limited capacity. Thus, when accessing notes and documents to use in thinking, the content needs to be easily extractable in small chunks. Here is an example that we can all relate to. Congress seems wedded to producing omnibus bills of some 2,000 or more pages. Even if legislators read the entire bills, they couldn't digest the content in any coherent way because the bills are not designed for thinking. No surprise then that we end up with incoherent, ineffective, and even destructive legislation.
Common Sense Methods for Organizing. The underlying principle should be to have a place for everything and put everything in its place. Examples:
  • Put important items (bills, car keys, purse, etc.) in their own same place.
  • Put sticky note reminders in key places.
  • Keep a calendar (but remember to check it each day).
  • Get a file cabinet and label the files in the most meaningful ways.
  • Have a tote bag or briefcase that always has in it what you need for the day.
Be proactive. If information of a given type accumulates over time, don't wait until the end to organize it. Organize as it goes along. For example, my federal tax information accumulates throughout the year. I don't wait until tax time to organize it. As bills, receipts, and the like come in during the year, I file them in file cabinet folders I have already set up for income tax return preparation. Come April, I can put all the information the tax accountant needs in a matter of a few minutes. And it reduces his time, which lowers my tax preparation bill.
Computer Methods. Computers give us access to enormous amounts of information. But the bad news is that the more information, the greater the need for good organization.
In the case of web-site addresses, most browsers have good systems for bookmarks, but after a couple years of saving bookmarks I find that I have not been sufficiently thoughtful as to how I set up folders and sub-folders.
For other kinds of information, the demand for organizational sophistication varies with the home and workplace workload. Here are a few, free, computer tools:

Tools that Synchronize Across Devices

  • One-Note On-line is included in Microsoft Windows. It allows creation of separate notebooks, and labeled "pages" within each notebook that accept separately pasted items that can be dragged about the page.
  • Evernote helps you keep all sorts of notes in topic-specific notebooks.
  • Google Docs is like Evernote, but is document focused.
  • Google Calendar helps you track events, set reminders, import appointments straight from Gmail, and is shareable.
  • Remember the Milk is a "to-do" reminder. It has specific apps for the web and multiple portable devices and you can connect it to multiple devices. It syncs with Outlook or Google mail.

Other Tools

  • TelePixie sends wake-up calls, reminders, and alerts to your mobile phone.
  • Sticky Notes comes with Microsoft Windows and is a computer version of the paper sticky notes you put on the refrigerator, walls, and elsewhere. You can keep the notes open all the time on the computer desktop or temporarily closed.
  • Stickies is a much more sophisticated system that runs on Windows. Unlike Sticky Notes which appear all at once on the desktop, Stickies notes are separately attached only to whatever document you are working on.
  • Flashcards provides a simple way to create flashcards with the information you are trying to learn and drill yourself to help make it stick in your mind.
  • WiseMapping is a mind mapping tool that provides you with an awesome way to keep notes in an organized fashion. Items in the map can have attached text commentary. Maps can be shared and exported in multiple formats.
Readers wanting to know more about how the brain works may be interested in Dr. Bill's recent book, Mental Biology (Prometheus).