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Crash course in learning theory

One formula (of many) for a successful blog is to create a "learning blog". A blog that shares what you know, to help others. Even--or especially--if that means giving away your "secrets". Teaching people to do what you do is one of the best ways we know to grow an audience--an audience of users you want to help.

It's what I try to do here because--let's face it--you're just not that into me ; ) But I assume (since you're reading this blog) that you ARE into helping your users kick ass. So to make content that's worth your time and attention, I try to make this a learning blog. I reckon y'all could not care less what I had for dinner, who I ate with, or what I think about the latest headlines.

So, as promised in an earlier post, here's a crash course on some of our favorite learning techniques gleaned from cognitive science, learning theory, neuroscience, psychology, and entertainment (including game design). Much of it is based around courses I designed and taught at UCLA Extension's New Media/Entertainment Studies department. This is the long version, and my next post will be just the bullet points with the pictures--as a kind of quick visual summary.

This is not a comprehensive look at the state of learning theory today, but it does include almost everything we think about in creating our books. And although it's geared toward blogs/writing virtually everything in here applies regardless of how you deliver the learning--you can easily adapt it to prentations, user documentation, or classroom learning. And remember, this is a BLOG, so don't expect academic rigor ; ) but I do have references, so leave a comment if there's something in particular you want.

Crash Course in Learning Theory

The long version...

• Talk to the brain first, mind second.Brain_3
Even if a learner is personally motivated to learn a topic, if the learning content itself isn't motivating, the learner's brain will do everything possible to look for something more interesting. This applies to both getting and keeping attention, as well as memory. Remember, you can't do anything until you get past the brain's crap filter! And to the brain, a dry, dull, academic explanation is definitely CRAP (regardless of how much your mind cares about the topic).

Learning is not a one-way "push" model.
Learners are not "empty vessels" waiting to be filled with content pushed into it by an expert, blogger, author, etc. Learning is something that happens between the learner's ears--it's a form of co-creation between the learner and the learning experience. You can't create new pathways in someone's head... your job is to create an environment where the chances of the learner "getting it" in the way that you intend are as high as possible.

• Provide a meaningful benefit for each topic, in the form of "why you should care about this" scenario.
Learning is much more effective if the learner's brain knows why what you're about to talk about matters. The benefit and/or reason why you should learn something needs to come before the actual content. Otherwise, the learner's brain gets to the end of what you're telling them and says, "Oh, NOW you tell me. If you'd said that earlier, I would have paid more attention..." This process of not-paying-attention is not completely within the learner's conscious control so, like I said, even if the person is motivated to learn this thing, their brain can still tune out during specific parts that don't start with a compelling benefit.

To find a "meaningful benefit", play the "Why? Who Cares? So What?" game with someone else. Describe the thing you're trying to explain, to which the other person asks, "Why?" Provide an answer, to which the person then asks, "Who cares?". Provide an answer, to which the person asks, "So?" At this point, when you're nearly ready to kill them for not getting it, you probably have the thing you should have said instead of whatever you said first (and second). The most compelling and motivating reason/benefit is almost always the thing you say only after you've answered at least three "Yeah, but WHY do I care?" questions.

• Use visuals!
We are all visual creatures, and the brian can process visual information far more efficiently than words. These pictures can come in many forms:
* Info graphic or diagram
* Visual metaphor
* Picture of the thing being described, with annotations
* Picture of the end state
* Picture designed to create attention and recall

• Use redundancy to increase understanding and retention.
Redundancy doesn't mean repetition--it means "say the same thing again, but differently." And "differently" can mean:
* From a different perspective.
* Using a different information channel (channels include things like Graphics, Examples, Prose explanations, step-by-step instruction/tutorial, case studies, exercises, summaries, bullet points, commentary, devil's advocate, Q & A, personal POV, etc.)

Also, the more senses you engage, the greater the potential for retention and recall. Even having a bowl of just-popped popcorn or the smell of freshly-baked cookies while learning, can make a difference. Bummer about web-delivered content, though...

Being terse is good for a reference document, but deadly in learning content. The best learning experience considers the way you'd learn that particular thing in real life -- but offers it in a safe, simulated, compressed form. Real-life learning is never terse; it's choas and confusion punctuated with moments of insight ("Ah-ha!") and clarity. It's a wave, not a straight line. A learning blog, book, or classroom shouldn't try to straighten it out!

• Maintain interest with variety and surprise.

• Use conversational language.
The brain pays more attention when it thinks it's in a conversation and must "hold up its end." And there's evidence that suggests your brain behaves this way even if the "conversation" is between a human (you) and a book or computer screen (or lecture).

• Use mistakes, failures, and counter-intuitive WTF?
People usually learn much more from failures than from being shown everything working correctly or as expected.
The most memorable learning experiences are usually those where things are going along fine, making sense, etc. when you suddenly slam into something that goes terribly wrong. Describing the things that do NOT work is often more effective than showing how things DO work. (We call this the "WTF learning principle").

But showing is even better than describing. And even better than showing is letting the learner experience. Take the learner down a garden path where everything makes perfect sense until it explodes. They are far more likely to remember than if you simply say, "Oh, and be sure you do it such and such a way."

It's tempting to want to protect the learners from the bumps and scrapes experienced in the real world, but in many cases (with many topics) you aren't doing the learner any favors.

• Use the filmaker (and novelist) principle of SHOW-don't-TELL.
Rather than lecture about the details of how something works, let them experience how it works by walking them through a story or scenario, where they can feel the bumps along the way.

• Use "chunking" to reduce cognitive overhead.
Remember, we have very little short-term memory (RAM) in our heads. The standard rule is that we can hold roughly 7 things before we must either commit some of it to long-term storage or toss it out to take in something new. And the things you hold in short-term memory vanish as soon as there is an interruption. You look up a phone number, and as long as you repeat it to yourself and nobody asks you a question, you can remember it--usually just long enough to dial the number. By the time you finish talking to the person on the other end of the line, the number is long gone.

Chunking takes fine-grained data/facts/knowledge and puts them into meaningful or at least memorable chunks to help reduce the number of things you have to hold in short-term memory, and increase the chance of retention and recall. For example, imagine you were asked to take 30 seconds to memorize the following "code symbols" for the numbers 1-10:

you'd be lucky to get 60% correct in a follow-up quiz given immediately after those 30 seconds. There are simply too many symbols to memorize in such a short time, and there's no instantly obvious way to relate them to one another.

But... with one simple change to the way in which the symbols are presented--and without changing the symbols:

30 seconds gets most people to 100% accuracy in the follow-up quiz. In other words, by grouping the symbols into a meaningful, memorable pattern, we reduce the number of individual (and potentially arbitrary) things you have to memorize, and increase the chances.

• Since stress/anxiety can reduce focus and memory, do everything possible to make the learner feel relaxed and confident.
That does not mean dumbing-down the material, but rather letting the learner know that -- "This IS confusing -- so don't worry if it's still a little fuzzy at this point. It will start to come together once you've worked through the rest of the examples." In other words, let them know that they aren't stupid for not getting it at this point. For especially difficult and complex topics, let the learner know where they should be at each stage, and help them decide whether they need to go back and repeat something. Make sure they know that this repetition is part of the normal learning process, not something they must do because they failed.

If you're worried about being patronizing, then don't patronize. Just be honest about what it takes for people to learn that content. But you can't do that unless you know how hard it is for a beginner to learn it. As experts, we have a tough time remembering what it was like NOT TO KNOW, so if you're not sure, do the research. One of the best ways to find out what newcomers struggle with is to visit online discussion forums for beginners in your topic. This is also a great way to come up with a table-of-contents or topic list, because what you THINK should be a no-brainer might be the one thing everyone gets stuck on, and what you think would be confusing could turn out to be easy for most people.

The point is, YOU are not necessarily the best judge of how your audience will learn the topic. And empathy rarely helps -- you cannot truly put yourself in someone else's shoes unless their brain and background are a very close match for yours. You have to find out what your learners are struggling with, and suspend any judgement about "This should be a no-brainer."

Those who have taught a topic have a big advantage writing about it--they've fielded the questions and watched people struggle. They know how things should be "weighted" according to how difficult they are. But you can learn almost as much simply by lurking on beginner discussion forums (or attending user group sessions for newbies).

• Use seduction, charm, mystery to build curiosity.
We're hard-wired to pay attention and pursue things we're attracted to. This isn't about selling them on an idea--it's about helping them stay engaged and learning. Knowing what--and when--to withold is one of the most powerful tools you have. If you're writing reference material (like this post), witholding will just piss people off. But in a learning experience, you want a page-turner. And don't even think about suggesting that "page-turner" doesn't apply to, say, technical material. If the purpose is learning, the learner has to stay engaged. It's up to you to craft an experience that keeps them hooked. This engagement might be within a single post, or you might offer little cliffhangers or teasers to keep them engaged across multiple posts, if that's what it takes to cover a topic.

• Use a spiral model to keep users engaged.
Game developers know the importance of "The Next Level", and learning experiences must do the same. Each iteration through the spiral should start with a meaningful, motivating goal, followed by the interaction/activity/reading that moves you toward that goal, followed by a meaningful payoff. Ideally, the "meaningful payoff" leads right into the next motivating goal.

For example, in a game the payoff for completing a level might be "You Get A New Weapon". But now that you have that new weapon, here's the cool new thing you can do that you couldn't do before. Learning doesn't need to be any different. "Imagine you want to do X on your website..." is the goal that starts the topic, but when the topic is complete, the learning content can say, "Now that you have THAT new [superpower capability], wouldn't it be cool if you could do Y?" And off they go into the next round of learning.

• Don't rob the learner of the opportunity to think!
Rather than simply spelling everything out step by step, ask questions, pose multiple and potentially conflicting viewpoints, show the topic from different perspectives, and set up scenarios (and possibly exercises) that allow the learner to use deeper brain processing. Things that encourage deeper thinking are those that cause the learner to categorize, organize, apply, infer, evaluate, etc. Don't be afraid to pose questions that you don't answer right away.

Think back to those teachers you had who would ask a question then immediately answer it, as opposed to those who would answer a question then just sit there... waiting...

• Use the 80/20 principle to reduce cognitive overload.
It's far more important that they nail the key things than be exposed to everything. Be brutal, be brave, be relentless in what you leave out. Knowing what NOT to include is more important in learning design than knowing what TO include.

• Context matters.
Try to place facts, concepts, procedures, examples in a bigger context. Even if you've already discussed the context, don't be afraid to repeat that context again. For example, instead of always showing code snippets, show the code within the larger context of where it usually appears. Highlight the code you're focused on by bolding it, putting it in a box, etc., so that the learner is not overwhelmed by the amount of code, and can focus on just the part you're talking about, but still be able to see how that new code relates to the rest of the code. Our rule of thumb in our books is to show the same code context two or three times before switching to just the snippets (although this rule varies greatly with the type of code).

• Emotion matters!
People learn and remember that which they FEEL. Look back at what you've written and if it's dry and lifeless, try to inject some energy. Dry, academic, formal, lecture-style writing is usually the WORST form of learning content.

One of the many ways to help tap into emotions (and increase attention and memory) is to use the brain's reaction to faces. Almost any kind of face with a strong expression evokes a part of the brain reserved just for processing faces. The ability to accurately recognize faces and read facial expressions is a key element of survival for the brain...

• Never underestimate the power of FUN to keep people engaged.
The act of having fun is also an emotion, so anything associated with fun has a greater chance of being remembered.

• Use stories.
Humans have been learning from stories for, well, a really really really long time. Millenia longer than we've been learning from lectures on just the data and information. When we say "stories", we don't necessarily mean actual fictional "John's network went down just as he was plugging in the...", although those do work. But a "story" can simply mean that you're asking the learner to imagine herself wanting to do a particular thing, and then offering an experience of what that would be like if she were actually trying to accomplish it, with all the ups, downs, false leads, etc. (but again, with less of the actual pain she might experience in real life). A flight simulator, for example, is a kind of story.You aren't just up there learning the controls; you're actually flying in a particular storyline.

If you're a software developer, another way to think about story-driven learning is to map use-cases to learning stories. Base your learning content around individual use-cases, and put the learner in the center of the use-case. One easy trick for designing story-driven learning is to start each topic with something like, "Imagine you want to do..." and then walk though that experience. It makes the learning organic and real, and helps make sure you get rid of the stuff that doesn't need to be there. If it doesn't show up in a use-case/story, are you so sure you should be teaching it?

• Use pacing and vary the parts of the brain you're exercising.
Learning--and especially memorization--doesn't happen at an even pace. Brains--or especially parts of brains--get tired and lose focus. By varying the pace--and type--of learning content, you give a user's brain the chance to let one part rest while the other part takes over. For example, follow a heavy left-brain technical procedure with a big-picture example/story that covers the same topic. This helps the learner's memory in two different ways--the redundancy means two different chances to save the information, and the fact that you gave one part of the brain a break while shifting to a different part keeps their brain working longer without fatigue.

Think about it--if you hopped up and down on your right foot repeatedly, that right leg would give up after fewer repetitions than if you kept switching from right to left. Pacing--by frequently switching which parts of your body (or in this case, brain) you're using--lets you stay fresher for a longer period.

Also, recording something to long-term memory is rarely instant (although the stronger the associated emotion, the faster (and more likely) your brain is to record it). Memory is a physical/chemical process that happens after you've been exposed to something, and if anything interrupts the process, the memory is not stored. That's why people with serious head injuries often cannot remember what took place just prior to the injury--the process of recording those things to long-term memory was stopped.

If you want someone to remember something, you must give them a chance to process that memory. Relentlessly presenting new, tough information (like tons of code and complex concepts) without also including chances to reflect, process, think, apply, review, etc. virtually guarantees that much of the learning will be forgotten.

• Remember, it's never about you. It's about how the learner feels about himself as a result of the learning experience.
Don't use learning content as a chance to show off your knowledge--that virtually guarantees your content won't be user-friendly. Use it as a chance to help someone's life a little.

A successful learning blog is about helping the readers learn and grown and kick ass! Make that happen, and your stats will take care of themselves. In contrast, the best way to ensure a low readership is to assume that readers are into you. Offering users nothing but your opinions, however well-reasoned, might not be enough to make it worth their scarce time and attention.

"If you teach it, they will come."

Posted by Kathy on January 3, 2006 | Permalink


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The most compelling and motivating reason/benefit is almost always the thing you say only after you've answered at least three "Yeah, but WHY do I care?" questions.

BAM! I instantly remembered a college-level database course I took last year.

The first day of class was exceedingly boring. The instructor went over getting SQL server to run, some basic syntax and finally got us working with a small database.

It wasn't until five minutes before class ended that she said something like,

Now this is a small database. But imagine if you had 1,000 records, or 100,000 records! You could save yourself hours upon hours of tedious and error prone work!


I had a sneaking suspicion the entire class that she was going about presenting the material the wrong way.

I had like two years worth of SQL experience coming into the class, but there were some beginners in there, and I could tell they were asking themselves, "Why the hell did I sign up for this?"

Awesome post Kathy. I'll be reading this several more times, as well as printing it out for my employer.

Posted by: Rabbit | Jan 4, 2006 1:41:33 AM

Kathy: "Ome formula (of many)" , Ome? unless you mean something like Ohm or the Indian "Om Shanti". I'm a king at typos so don't take it too seriously ;-)

Rabbit: I have attended several SQL Server courses and I've had instructors asking me if I *really* needed that course (After I told them that I was/ have been an Oracle DBA). Blogs on other hand will not only teach but will take over all forms of business life. Blogs will evolve into THE medium of telling facts.

There's awful lot of precious information available on blogs. Opinions which will change the face of our IT and all other aspects of our lives.

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Jan 4, 2006 3:14:48 AM

Wonderful stuff. Thanks.

Posted by: L. | Jan 4, 2006 6:26:40 AM

This is perfect timing -- I was actually pondering making a request to you for *exactly* this kind of overview.

Thanks (and don't stop!)

Posted by: Brett Porter | Jan 4, 2006 8:18:54 AM

Why do many teachers claim that they learned way more teaching than they did as students? Many people would answer that teachers spend more time with the material. This is true, but it doesn't explain "why". In reality, the teacher has had to recall the information way more than the student.

Recall is a muscle, the more it is exercised, the stronger it gets. Supplementing everything Kathy has said with random recall points will make the learning experience that much more efficient. Some ideas:

- Quizzes
Short quizzes that force the student to recall older material. If you can interlace different "aged" material in the quizzes, that makes it even better. One example would be a quiz with questions on one thing 5 minutes old, one thing 15 minutes old, and one thing 30 minutes old. The answers should be given out at the end for confirmation and the learners informed of this ahead of time.

- Reverse roles
Let the student be the teacher for some things. Whether its as simple as letting a student answer another student's question on a previously covered topic or letting (making?) the student come up and present on a topic with Q&A afterwards.

- Share the learning
Let the students get together in small groups and share what they've learned. This one can be sort of magical because the student will not only try and recall the information but will recall the learning experience as well. "I really like the way she related pointers to the postal address system." This is why I think seminars are awesome for learning. People sit through various seminars and in the breaks and pauses they will talk about it with the other attendees. Bizang!

Could you please put some kind of divider between comments? Its hard to tell where one comment ends and the next one starts.

Posted by: Bob B | Jan 4, 2006 8:26:46 AM

Very nice and useful post Kathy. Thanks

Posted by: Jan Korbel | Jan 4, 2006 8:46:37 AM

Great Stuff!
Where do you get all the photos for you graphic elements? I love the faces.

Posted by: Matthew | Jan 4, 2006 9:31:11 AM

I was wondering the same thing Matthew was. And while I really do want to keep reading your teachings I must confess that I have often thought it would be way cool to invite you over for coffee (seeing as I also live in Boulder.)

Posted by: Rachel Rosencrantz | Jan 4, 2006 10:08:37 AM

Two things worried me:

1 - Why the repetition of this 'kick ass' phrase? It doesn't trigger a pleasant image, and the last thing I'd want to do is encourage trainees to go round kicking each other, or anything else. Without getting too PC, can't you find a less loaded phrase?

2 - Reading through I kept asking myself, "Yes, but how do we know that?". There must be research on learning and teaching methods (what are all these University schools of education doing?). Why not link to some academic quantitative research to back up your assertions (it would make them more believable). Not that I doubt them, but they would be reinforced with some backup.

3 - (ok, three things worried me..) We are still getting arguments and changes in policy (in the UK) at the simplest level of learning i.e. HOW TO LEARN TO READ. If we don't really know that, how can we know how best to teach people to do more difficult things? Intuition is no help (as in the reading case).


Posted by: Wally | Jan 4, 2006 11:26:28 AM


Posted by: john | Jan 4, 2006 12:10:36 PM

Oustanding as ever!

Posted by: john | Jan 4, 2006 12:24:46 PM

I love the picture of the WTF girl. I know that look. I've *seen* that look!

Not being from the UK, I can't help with a substitute for the "kick ass" phrase. In the US it's perfectly acceptable. (Ok, maybe not at my grandmother's house ;)

Wally, to your second point - Kathy has included links in the past, but I'm guessing that due to the length of this post the links were left out this time. But Kathy did say ...

"... I do have references, so leave a comment if there's something in particular you want."

Posted by: Bill | Jan 4, 2006 12:54:33 PM

BOB: This is outstanding advice! Reverse-roles and share the learning--something every classroom experience could use more of, but even in an online forum, this is useful. Bert is always encouraging beginners on the javaranch discussion boards to take a chance *answering* questions for the reasons you give, and the act of having to explain something makes it much more memorable (and smokes out problems in thinking about it that you didn't know you had). Of course, you have to make the people who are doing this recognize that it's part of the learning experience and NOT something they're supposed to be perfect (or even at this point GOOD at). Thanks!

MATTHEW/RACHEL: most of the photos (except for the 50's pics) are from one of two stock art collections, Hemerra and my FAVORITE -- iStockPhoto.com. The 50's pictures are from a Getty/Photodisc collection that periodically becomes available but is often temporarily retired. Rachel, I'm always up for coffee! - Send me an email : )

WALLY: I can always count on you to recognize when I'm being especially lazy. Bill's right, most of the references are buried in other posts, but I should have put the main ones in... so here they are:

The 80/20 references (80% of what I talk about is covered by these 20% of the total references I have):

* Cognitive Scientist, early AI guru Roger Schank http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/schank/schank_index.html

* Designing World Class E-Learning (by Roger Schank)

* E-Learning and the Science of Instruction (by Ruth Colvin Clark, Richard Mayer)

(The book summarizes much of the research that's spread out elsewhere)

* The Media Equation (Clifford Nass, Byron Reeves)

(OK, yes, these ARE the guys who gave us Microsoft Bob -- but that doesn't mean they don't have some of the best research out there about human/computer interaction ; )

* Flow (by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

* The art of human-computer interface design (edited by Brenda Laurel)

(Check out her book -- "Computers as Theatre", too)

* Mind Hacks

(You can get to the book from their blog)

And while I'm here, another great reference for all this is the Cognitive Daily blog:

I'm not thrilled with the "kick-ass" phrase, or for that matter "I Rule!" (which I also use a lot, because of their zero-sumness if you take them literally--which we don't. But they're the best I can think of for describing that "YES!" feeling you get when your code compiles after intense debugging, or you sink the 3-point basket, or make it down a mogul field in one go, or... but Wally's right that it does rather imply that if you "kick-ass", then someone else is getting their ass kicked. But here in the US, we don't necessarily mean it that way. The only other one I have used is "rock", but somehow it doesn't sound right to say, "You want to help your users rock."
The rest are unwieldy... "You want to help your users learn and grown and spend more time in flow" is what we're talking about, but it's too tedious to keep saying that, and doesn't fit on a graphic well ; )
I'm very open to suggestions and I'm going to keep in mind that not everyone interprets this the way I do. Cheers.

JOHN: you made my day with WTF!

RABBIT: Recognizing what is and isn't working is the first step, knowing WHY is even better. Of course my daughter Skyler has the annoying habbit of pointing out to a few of her teachers all the ways in which their classes do not support learning. But her history and math teachers in 11th grade were awesome-- and had students acting out important aspects of the topics, trading roles or playing characters, anthropomorphizing, creating videos, all kinds of interesting and interactive activities that made the topics come to life. And these were big 'ol public school classrooms, too.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 4, 2006 1:33:33 PM

Thanks for the post Kathy. Nicely summed up. There is stuff out there to back up these points. I was glad to see the "why should I care" section. How important to remember to ask that question before we try to teach anything to any group. Put it in the big picture.

Concerning the comment:
"Why not link to some academic quantitative research to back up your assertions (it would make them more believable)."

Wally, I keep asking myself if that is what makes things believable.We have so much quantitative research. It is coming out of our ears and our kids are still not reading any better. Making a big deal out of learning to read and quantifying it misses the point of reading. Why spend years doing in school what a kid can pick up in a few hours?

I come from the academic education setting, and maybe because of that I am so skeptical of what mass schooling is capable of. At home I have a "kick ass" nine year old reader who reads way beyond her level, and a five year old just beginning to discover the joy of being able to read on his own. He runs with his book and reads to me in the kitchen, on the couch, and even in the bathroom. Our house is full of books. I will never know what would have happened if I had left the job entirely to school. We have been reading to them since they could sit and hold their heads up.

Maybe the problem is leaving the reading to be taught in school. We break it into measurable discreet units for the comfort of teachers, for school board accountability records, and for bar charts at the Ministry of Education. We teach those discreet units instead of what fires up kids imaginations and gets them emotionally involved. We write boring books with measured words so we can neatly stack them in reading levels which will allow us to do some "credible' quantitative research. While we are limiting the variables and setting ourselves up to be able to conduct better quantitative research, we are impoverishing the child's experience and undermining their intellect. Unfortunately that doesn't do much for the kids. They love complexity and grasping big ideas. We must be kidding if we think we can dissect the bunny and in the process find out what it would have been like to have it as a pet.

Then there are the attitudes to reading. We went to the Nutcracker this Christmas for the first time. I could not help but notice that in the scene with the opening of the presents, Fritz (Marie's brother) got a book. He walked to the front of the stage, threw the book on the floor and stomped on it. I am running into such attitudes to books that are written with the purpose of hooking children on reading.

So yes, we know good teaching when we see it, but then we try to analyze it and quantify it and we make it worse. It is important to approach some things with a sense that we do not have to understand them entirely, even though it may be a worthy exercise trying to.

What do you think?

Posted by: Daniela | Jan 4, 2006 2:38:01 PM

Excellent Kathy.

I'm now convinced you used to work for Toyota (or someone else that applied the lessons of W Edwards Deming):

"The most compelling and motivating reason/benefit is almost always the thing you say only after you've answered at least three "Yeah, but WHY do I care?" questions."

This is their "5 Why?" technique in a parallel universe to you... where they get down to root issues by the time someone's answered the fifth "why?" question

As to "kicks ass"... this limey reckons it's the "Wow" factor. A couple of times i've sold books on Amazon and - though serendipity - discovered the buyers lived within 20 mins of me. The comments you get back when they receive the book though their door inside 30 mins of order transmit that "wow" factor. People value speed - especially when they are surprised by it.

But now back to apply the learnings :-)

Ian W.
Simplicity Sells!

Posted by: Ian Waring | Jan 4, 2006 3:23:31 PM

I think that a lot of the problem with learning to read may really be lack of interest. Many of the pointers in the above list could help.

I am reminded of the story of Lazerus and Hurricane Carter - in the book Lazerus hasn't learned how to read - in part because of the absolute stress of his home life and his inability to focus in class. However he starts making progress when he is moved to a less stressful environment, his self-confidence is boosted, and he gets a book that interests him. Emotional response and interest took him from stumbling over syllables to reading to writing letters, to starting a whole chain of actions that changed other peoples lives.

I suspect that the reading isn't happening because it isn't interesting and it isn't aimed at the children themselves. I don't know how it is in the UK but in the US there is a lot of "teaching to the test". You really want to teach to the student and the test will take care of itself.

Why was it working before? Perhaps parents were more involved, reading was more essential and/or the books used were more topical to the students.

Posted by: Rachel Rosencrantz | Jan 4, 2006 10:02:14 PM

Regarding the issues of literacy, this is a piece that I wrote some time ago - concerning the re-shaping of the American Education system - based on the work of John Taylor Gatto. Some of his findings make for alarming reading.


Posted by: damien | Jan 5, 2006 3:33:34 AM

I raised the issue of 'learning to read' because it seems to bring out the cognitive/pattern recognition dichotomy in training quite nicely. And (it spite of what Daniela seemed to be saying) once we in the UK started to measure progress (against the opposition of teaching uninons as I recall) it was clear that many children were NOT learning to read, and were functionally illiterate still at age 11, when moving from primary to secondary education. Our first reaction was to define a period during each day for teachers to engage with the children specifically in reading practice. Most technique was left to the teachers. Progress was made, but now although there are fewer children unable to read well at age 11, there are still too many. We need another push. All this focus on the problem brought out that reading was not natural like walking, it needed method and practice and teaching. Dyslexia added another dimension to this; it recently came out from research that it isn't a condition people are stuck with at all, just a general problem for slow readers. I feel sorry for policy makers and legislators when our education research is so poor that such important questions are still controversial.

We know so little about how the brain works and develops that the kind of methods used based purely on anecdotes about what worked for some in the past are not likely to be useful when applied across classes and social groups and ages and ranges of intelligence.


Posted by: Wally | Jan 5, 2006 5:32:09 AM

This is terrific information - however to print the material out takes 42 pages. Can you provide a print version without the frames?

Posted by: Karryne | Jan 5, 2006 7:01:27 AM

I agree with Karryne - This is great info. Can you please provide a print version.

Posted by: Phil | Jan 5, 2006 7:05:42 AM

Last Christmas, my son had a "Nutcracker"-reaction to receiving books and I told him exactly what I thought of that. He loves books, he just didn't want one of his gifts "wasted" on getting them. This year, every gift he opened was greeted with "Awesome!" ...including the package of books. He even made remarks like "I love this one... We have this one at school... etc." So he either learned the proper way to accept a gift, adjusted his attitude toward books, or I just picked better books to give him this year! :)

Either way, I think that even if the schools were doing a superior job at teaching and practicing reading skills, it's like Daniela says: it has to be encouraged at home as well. UK's second push, then, should be to encourage parents to read to their children.


Posted by: junior | Jan 5, 2006 8:38:58 AM

Hi Kathy,

This one is in the same category as Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" and Steve Krug's " Don't Make Me Think" - read regularly and keep working towards the standards you've all set. Thanks!

Posted by: Cathy | Jan 5, 2006 11:19:21 AM

Thanks, i love your blog and this was one of the best and inspiring posts i read here so far!

Posted by: jay | Jan 5, 2006 2:01:12 PM


Oh... hold on... My printer just ran out of paper.

Posted by: olivier blanchard | Jan 5, 2006 8:24:15 PM

Great Post! It's a keeper!

Posted by: Aaron | Jan 5, 2006 11:25:36 PM

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