This in really a comment for Alex, author of the blog My Opinions and my Life, but I feel that this response is sufficiently long and off topic that it warrants its own post. This blog was recommended to me yesterday after a friend of mine recognised that Alex shares some of my interests. He’s about to embark on a polyphasic sleeping schedule and he’s been training his left hand to improve its dexterity for increased efficiency. People who know me well would’ve heard me harp on about efficiency and about polyphasic sleep at some point, they’re just a couple examples of ideas that I love. In a nutshell, I love exotic ideas that challenge the traditional way of doing things. So I was interested to see what Alex had to say (BTW Alex, perhaps when you’ve mastered the polyphasic sleep schedule you could use some of the extra time to try learning to type on a Dvorak keyboard).
One of his earliest entries is a post describing Busywork. As he describes it “Busywork is work assigned which is intended to keep the person, in this case students, busy or it is work which is pointless and teaches nothing. This can also include homework. It is not limited to students and schoolwork but in this case it is.” Busywork is a reoccurring theme that is mentioned in several of his articles.
I had some moments like that while I was at school (I finished in 2002), but I think it was more typical of some of my friends. They lamented about the stupidity of “busywork” and how poorly designed the school system was and how we shouldn’t need to do certain things.
Most of the time though, I didn’t debate the value of our menial learning tasks. While I remember broaching the subject a couple of times, there didn’t seem like there was much that could be done. Also, I was made to realise that my parents and government were paying a lot of money for my education and I felt obliged to make the most of the “learning experience” – admittedly, in hindsight, I could’ve done better on several occasions.
However, I distinctly remember this argument about “busywork” coming to a head one afternoon in maths. Our maths text book was divided into around 20 chapters and each chapter was divided into 20 or so sections. Each section would focus on a certain sort of problem, have a couple examples, and then have around 30 questions for us to practice. These questions would all be practically the same, especially at first, they’d just change the numbers and make some of them +/-. Towards the end, around question 25-30 they might be a little more difficult, introducing a few more unknowns into the equation, or raising something to the power of 3 (^3) instead of just squaring it (^2).
Our maths teacher was a good bloke, and he would only ask us to do the odd numbered questions up until Q25. But still, I remember someone asking what the point of doing all those questions was. Our teacher said that it was to train us and ingrain the idea. Sure, after reading the example, the question and the path to the solution are obvious, and you might be able to jump straight to the last question and work it out. However by doing a fair selection of the questions you’d get a better taste for the logic. If you thought it through each time rather than just plugging in numbers, it would slowly become ingrained. Soon enough, you didn’t need to remember how to find the solution because the logic became second nature. Practising all of those problems wasn’t about learning an algorithm for how to derive the solution, it was about learning how to think, learning the tools necessary to arrive at similar solutions independently.
At the time this struck a chord with me. Our work wasn’t aiming for us to rote learn algorithms, it was slowly teaching us a process.
Later, at uni, in neuroscience we did some study regarding how the brain learns and remembers. It’s all about building and then reinforcing neural-networks. This is particularly well demonstrated when it comes to learning and remembering motor functions, but it holds true for all sorts of learning.
If you’re doing something for the first time it’s difficult because you have to concentrate to co-ordinate everything. But when you’re doing something for the second time it’s easier for your brain because instead of reinventing the methods, it remembers how you performed the action last time and just repeats (while monitoring and adjusting for any changes). The more you perform the action, the easier it gets because the pathways may become easier to access and/or because shortcuts can develop. These might be shortcuts that make the task quicker in the physical world. For example, you might realise that it’s easier to hit the backspace key with your pinky rather than your ring finger, and so you become a more efficient typist. Or, these shortcuts could be neurological shortcuts, i.e. instead of your brain thinking about where the backspace key is and what finger it needs and where that finger needs to go, the process becomes “muscle memory”, where by, when you realise you’ve made a mistake all of the relevant steps needed to get your pinky hitting the backspace have been reduced to the point where the backspace key almost gets struck without requiring any conscious effort.
Of course, this is highly relevant to the idea of becoming ambidextrous. You already know how to write, so at a technical level writing with your left hand is just as easy as writing with your right hand. There’s no extra understanding that is required, it’s just a matter of muscle control. Developing better dexterity is just a matter of practising and allowing the grey matter to form more shortcuts so that it can control the motor functions with greater ease. Practice makes perfect.
As you would therefore expect, they’ve found that certain musicians (such as violinists and pianists) have larger motor-neural areas specific to controlling their hands because they constantly train and demand both of their hands to work simultaneously with dexterity and precision.
Also, in other studies, they’ve found that you can improve your strength just by doing ‘thinking exercises’. Your strength isn’t just determined by the size of your muscles, but also by the way your utilise them. As I was saying before, the more times you do something, the more efficient you become. When it comes to a physical task, doing the exercise over and over will allow your body to find new combinations of muscles that it can call upon to complete the task, this takes quite a while to perfect. They’ve done studies where they get someone to imagine lifting a weight or squeezing a sensor. They’ll get the person to imagine they’re doing this several times a day for a few weeks. At the end of the training period they’ll test how well the person can squeeze the sensor. They’ve found that the strength gain is comparable to someone who’s been training physically during that time. Of course there’s a limit to how much you can increase the efficiency of your muscles and eventually you’ll have to start working out if you want to gain further strength, but to begin with it’s just about all in your mind. This is yet another reason why gym membership is a rip off: the first few weeks that you pay for is really just spent doing mental conditioning, you could get the same results without getting off the couch! Gyms sort of acknowledge this, telling people that they shouldn’t expect any results within the first few weeks (although they don’t say why).
So, back to school. A reasonable proportion of the time school work is boring and repetitious. But that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. It teaches you discipline, hones your ability to learn, focuses your attention. Most undergraduate study at uni is much of the same, teaching kids how to think, analyse, research, critique, collect and store information. Being able to flick through an academic journal is a skill in itself that can only be gained through some hard yakka.
Finally, you should read this article by Malcolm Gladwell where he discusses how geniuses aren’t born, they take time and lots of practice to develop.
I also had some other friends at school who weren’t so worried about busywork. One of my friends was very successful at school and ‘stood in line’ most of the time. But by the end of High School he said that he’d had enough. He was sick of doing the other stupid stuff that they make kids do at school. He was sick of taking crap from teachers just because they’re in a position of power, or taking crap from idiot school yard bullies just because it’s not worth the trouble. Or doing stuff for the school that helps the school but doesn’t really aid your education directly, like peer-mentoring (making year 8s not feel threatened) or doing school talks for assembly or cleaning up the campus.
Once again, this was the school teaching us discipline. This was not further academic discipline, it was about how to be good citizens, work as a team member for a larger cause, look after humanity and the earth. They were trying to instil some leadership skills, responsibility and a sense of pride. Most of it was “community work” which was of direct benefit to the school and made us feel like we were being taken advantage of. But it endeavoured to ingrain some of the values that made our school and the members of its community successful.
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