I don’t see as much disagreement between us as you might be thinking. Precisely because I agree with your numbered points 1 and 2, I suggested it could be beneficial to compress most of our 12 years of math instruction down to a more intensive 2-3 years. That doesn’t mean we couldn’t instill useful basic arithmetic in lower grades. If we chose a smaller set of core basics, it could be quite practical to retain them over long summers and breaks—at least for the students who stay in our system for the long haul.
I’m also glad you brought up the fact that spaced repetition doesn’t have to involve software. I should have done more to remind readers of this. I weave the spacing and testing effects into the fabric of my course in many ways that have nothing to do with software.
Carefully engineered homework assignments are great if you have motivated students. Take-home SRS could even work for that. Those students are usually fine, though. It’s the apathetic middle I have to fight for, and they won’t do homework regardless of how I try to incentivize it.
Moreover, I don’t feel good about assigning to students who would hate to do it. School is already prison for those kids. I don’t want to send prison home with them. As both a child and a parent, I have been too familiar with the toxic effects homework—especially math homework—can have on family relationships. Let kids have a light at the end of the daily tunnel, I say.
Is homework vital to a successful math program? I don’t know. But I’m glad I don’t teach math.
Did you get IRB approval for these human studies on children?
I’m not sure which is more absurd: the IRB approval process or the very idea of high school. I’ve often asked people to consider a thought experiment where everyone on Earth suddenly forgets that our educational system as we know it ever existed. Would we really reinvent it just like it is now? Hearing how it worked, would we scream in terror and cancel anyone who had taken part? (Status quo bias much?)
When I was studying stand-up comedy, I actually developed a bit in which I play-acted a researcher proposing high school to an ethics board. It went like this:
RESEARCHER: “I was thinking we could stick 35 sleep-deprived teenagers in a room for an hour and expose them to academic stimuli. After that, we’ll do some tests on them.”
BOARD: “I see. Tell me more about your subjects.”
RESEARCHER: “Well, they’re minors, obviously.”
RESEARCHER: “And most of them will be enrolled against their will.”
BOARD: “And how long will you need them?”
RESEARCHER: “6 sessions a day for four years.”
BOARD: “Wait, hold on. Sample size? How many kids are we talking about, here?”
RESEARCHER: “All of them.”
BOARD: (mutterings among themselves) “Well, it sounds like everything is in order...”
Are you familiar with Direct Instruction, which is reminiscent of the Mennonite school?
Someone (probably on LW) pointed me to Direct Instruction a few years back, so yes, I’m acquainted with it. Because of the emphasis on staying fully reviewed on all relevant prior knowledge, I saw it as having obvious promise for technical subjects like math, in the hands of the right teacher. I was less convinced it made a good fit elsewhere, perceiving (perhaps unfairly—I didn’t dig too deeply) some big negative trade-offs:
Like with my whole-class Anki, it seems heavily reliant on the teacher’s high-energy snake-charmer charisma. This makes it difficult to sustain for much of a class period and demands a great deal from a teacher who tries to do it all day long, day after day. This also makes it difficult to broadly among teachers with different personalities.
It sounds brittle with regards to roster variance. Specifically, it seems pretty insistent on having everyone in the room up to speed. With careful tracking/grouping of students, this can be achieved, but in practice, kids move in to your school part way through the year and aren’t on the same page. Or you only have the one or two teachers for that grade level math, so the slowest kids are in the same boat as the sharpest. I would think that one or two stragglers would grind the class to a halt, and that this would be statistically inevitable in larger classes. (I don’t know if this makes DI math worse than the status quo, where plenty of students are fall behind and get lost, but with less fanfare and hold-up for everyone else.)
Have you ever tried SRS for muscle memory?
No. I’m not seeing how that would work, or how that would be relevant to what I do, but I’m certainly curious. Do you have examples?
Do you think that instinctive drive to listen to experts “talk shop” applies to apathetic students, though?
That’s definitely the right question. If you and another expert leap straight into fluent French, no, I don’t think your apathetic students will try to keep up—especially if they are early beginners. More helpful might be a Franc-lish hybrid conversation where you swap stories of embarrassing errors and insights largely in English while sprinkling in French words and expressions, reenacting parts of colorful encounters from your combined French-speaking experience.
I also think one of the difficulties in modeling language fluency is that the whole point of being fluent is to not need to think about the language, but to simply think in it, so I’m not sure what your vocalized monologue would be about...unless...
Ok, here’s a thought: I and the other motivated folks I learned Spanish with sometimes found ourselves slipping into a Spanglish patois outside of class where we spoke English with Spanish syntax. It felt like silly play at the time, but I now think it was an instinctive intermediate step to thinking in that language.
“It makes rain.” (It’s raining.)
“To me pleases the rain!” (I like rain.)
Perhaps you could try fostering a Franc-lish dialect in your classes by thinking out loud in that style and inviting others to join you in banter, patiently nudging them to get the grammar right instead of just talking like Yoda. From there, substituting actual French with increasing frequency could feel very natural.
You may not have immersive environments, but I imagine you’ll be creating simulated immersion: play-acting situations that give you a chance to think out loud as though you are navigating the moment for real. (Example: Going to the produce section of the store and seeing what looks good, what you could make with it, etc.) How much of that you should do in English, Frank-lish syntactic patois, or French will probably be something you will develop an expert instinct for as you become skilled at reading the room. Along the way, developing an entertaining stage presence for this play-acting would give you a powerful weapon against apathy.
Yes, yes… and you would be randomly involving students in your little improvised plays, assigning them roles, keeping them on their toes, making the non-participants want to get called on.
Yep, it sounds pretty awesome from the comfort of my not-having-to-teach-French perch :)
Oh, wow. Yes. That. Looks like there’s another book I don’t need to write.
The fact that the concept was so fleshed out thirty years ago kind of pisses me off. My teacher training was so the opposite of that (a bunch of student group work nonsense). And I’m not finding apprenticeship familiar to new teachers currently, though strong veterans often seem to have at least a half-baked version they’ve derived from experience. I get a lot of wide-eyed “Yes!” when I share it with them.
Experts talking shop with other experts is one of my favorite finds when I study!
During my dive into stand-up comedy, I came across this video of some top comedians talking shop. Especially from about the 30 minute mark, when they seem less concerned with entertaining their audience, they get into some juicy minutiae of why a joke might work or not. It really expanded my thinking on the subject.
Are such chats more insightful than an expert teacher would be in a lesson on that same topic? Not necessarily. But you might not find a skilled teacher ever teaching a lesson on that exact topic. I think humans are naturally primed to closely observe expert-expert chats for a few reasons:
• Social proof. We instinctively want to be able to talk like the experts do so we can blend in with them. So we listen carefully to how they talk.
• Authenticity. If this is what experts actually talk about, we feel like it must really matter. It’s not just the lesson of the day.
• The overhearing effect. This is a term I’m making up, but I’ve found it to be an important one exploited by storytellers. We naturally want to deduce the context of overheard language, so we listen extra carefully, trying to fill in the blanks. I suspect this is down to humans’ highly evolved appetite for gossip. The fact that the experts aren’t talking to us is essential for exploiting this effect.
Although… I find that an expert talking to himself, seemingly unguarded, seemingly without conscious awareness that he is being overhead… can also trigger the overhearing effect. When I model a skill to my students, I try to verbalize my inner monologue in a way that will be intriguing to overhear and carry that essential whiff of authenticity.
I’m not sure what expert self-talk looks like in foreign language instruction, but I would be interested to find out. (Any ideas?)
But from my time becoming a reasonably fluent Spanish speaker (since lost), I can describe a few language dimensions I found interesting but neglected by all but the nerdiest supplemental books.
Sentence-level inflection patterns vary, and it helps to be aware of them. For instance, the musicality of typical question sentence is different in American English than in Castilian Spanish. If you can pick up on the melody earlier in the sentence, you can better contextualize what is being said asked.
The way speakers in different languages produce what seems, on the surface, to be identical phonemes, can be quite different, and understanding this is essential to actually sounding like a native. There can be hours of fun trying to practice a Castilian ‘toh’ sound (as in toma), with its thicker top-front palette tongue contact, vs. the American English cousin equivalent (as in tomato).
Native speakers of language A learning language B often end up predictably adopting many of the same idioms and juicy words from language B into their language A conversations with each other, and they find themselves saying or thinking in those patterns even when their brains are mostly running language A. It could be fun to introduce some of these to novices and make it part of the language A classroom slang—a kind of introduction to thinking in language B.
 If you’re a fellow teacher, you know that this is the differentiation problem solving itself.
 Do you want to know what I’ve hated most about teaching in person during the Covid-19 pandemic? The way mutual mask-wearing scrams my reactor. With my facial expressions concealed, my deliveries don’t land as consistently. With the students’ expressions concealed, I am deprived of the energy I would gain by getting a reaction out of them. The parts of the job that used to recharge me drain me instead. I don’t have words to describe how awful this feels.
 I remember the first time I appreciated this skill. It was when I saw this hilarious exchange between Louis CK and Conan O’Brien, and then saw the same content later as a bit in one of his shows (4:39). It seems embarrassing to have not seen it, but it hadn’t occurred to me that talk-show ‘interviews’ with comedians might sometimes be adaptations of their bits. Seriously, though, Louis CK really comes across as a spontaneously funny guy in that first clip. He elevates the convincingness of spontaneity into another layer of comedic art.
 She goes by many names around the world. In the UK, teachers swap scary stories about Bore-a-trix Lestrange, Lady Macbarf, and Nary, Queen of Nots.
 When it’s releasing more energy than you’re using to contain it.
 This book would be somewhat redundant in a world where we already have David Didau’s What if everything you knew about education was wrong? I crossed paths with this title during a pensive season of my life and appreciated the way it asked questions from first principles, challenging orthodox assumptions without jumping to new conclusions. In particular, Didau had the words to express what I was feeling about forgetting.
 Consider how a serial television show uses a “Previously, on [title]” to remind you of plot threads that are going to be relevant to this episode, some of which might be from several episodes back. This is superior to how they used to do it, which was “Last time, on [this show].” The primitive form would fail to remind you of relevant threads from older episodes and needlessly remind you of irrelevant threads from last week. When you review with your students, are you just reviewing the most recent stuff, or are you choosing the stuff that’s about to be relevant again?
 A widespread bias I see in education is viewing every subject as a technical one with a straightforward dependency tree. Take my subject: English. The delusion held by seemingly all district-level curriculum czars is that, if Johnny’s reading scores are deficient, there must be one or two very specific dependencies he lacks. They will often look to a single wrong answer on a diagnostic test and say, “Ah! There it is. ‘Deducing the meaning of a word from context.’ Teacher, give them lessons on that until they master it.”
Sorry. It doesn’t work that way. Johnny, like most humans, intuitively understands how to derive meaning from context. But in this case, he didn’t understand the context, because it’s one of the millions of things he’s naive about. He’s young and hasn’t read very many books. If we want to get reductive, I will concede the hypothetical possibility of making a shaggy graph of the millions of micro-dependencies that underpin an individual’s reading skill. But maybe we should just try to find Johnny some books he might like.
 You don’t have to justify yourself to me. I, too, have motivational and administrative reasons that keep me testing on occasion as well. But I approach and design them differently, when I can.
 Neel Nanda beat me to a discussion of this. Worth a read. The comments are great, too. I was reassured that others like me with real experience, a little research, and rigorous thinking on the topic had reached such similar conclusions.
Footnotes (each footnote is a reply to this comment)
I don’t claim that learning is repeated memorization and forgetting though. Learning is when the brain updates its internal models in response to the information it has been chewing on. Forgetting the info after is mostly inevitable, but is not core to this model-update process. And though relearning has silver linings, this does not mean that it is ideal.
Even a site’s use of a font I don’t recognize I provokes that reaction in me.
Even a site’s use of a font I don’t recognize I provokes that reaction in me.
Speaking of font difficulty, the new font doesn’t render well on my desktop (Windows 10, Chrome, default font/size, 1680x1050). It comes out looking poorly aliased, or maybe just not fully black. I compare to another serif-heavy site like nytimes and the latter just seems so much darker and crisper, even at similar sizes.
On my older MacBook Air the LW font is not as ugly, though it still seems less than fully black.
14-16, usually. These are 9th and 10th graders, with a few repeating upperclassmen.