16 November 2008 at 13:07 (Uncategorized)

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.



  1. Alex said,

    Thanks you for reading and commenting my blog, even mentioning it in a post. I was pretty surprised when I saw the email in my inbox, as I thought my blog was dead lol. Sorry I don’t write often anymore, but in 2 weeks from now, assuming my parents don’t try to stop me right away, I’ll be able to do polyphasic sleep again. Perhaps I should prepare a speech with all the benefits, and convince them they are just worried about new ideas. Yeah, I think I could pull that off.

    I have heard of the dvorak keyboard at one stage, and I wanted to try it. I never got around to it but its things like those that are interesting to blog about and reading what you said about it refreshed the idea for me and I’ll do it one day.

    Let me know when you start polyphasic sleeping, it will be interesting to read your experience.

  2. tnek said,

    Nice post! I wonder if I was one of the ones who bitched about busywork? Probably… I seem to remember bitching about a lot. I wanted to say that since school I’ve found that making a mistake while trying to do something is by far the best way for me to learn. I suspect this is the reason why learning problem-solving methods (e.g. maths) on my own is hard for me. It’s because when I make a mistake, I don’t have it shown to me or explained.

    Which brings me to the only thing I think is wrong with the way we did school: tests where mistakes are not explained by the marker. There’s nothing more useless in education than having a red cross or ‘0’ on a paper with no explanation. The only point of that is to rank you against others, not to help you learn (and – ignoring the community and discipline you mentioned – if you’re not learning at school, what’s the point of being there?) The people who do badly on tests and make the effort to understand where they went wrong probably end up knowing the material better on average than those who got 98% first time around.

    The stupidity of doing exams which you don’t even get to see again is barely worth mentioning. All that does is gives your brain the chance to reinforce some neural network which is getting you the wrong answer!

  3. monototo said,

    @Alex, I shall let you know when I try polyphasic. I’m not sure that it will be anytime soon, it’s hard with work. When I was younger I was always afraid of the impact that it could have on my developing body. My parents always stressed that growing bodies need good sleep – hence why babies sleep so much, which is kind of an interesting point seeing as babies have a natural polyphasic sleeping pattern. As an adult though there are other reasons to be concerned, the last thing you want to suffer is insomnia or depression or some other mental or physical illness or have some sort of accident resulting from sleep deprivation. You’re messing with you body in a fairly serious way, be careful!

    I don’t know how preparing a speech for your parents would go, I never found lecturing to parents worked particularly well. I’d recommend trying to see it from their point of view and then coming up with sound logical reasons why they shouldn’t worry. Good luck!

    @tnek Yes, I was thinking of you and Josh mainly as people who complained about busywork. But there were others as well. We all did it.

    As for exams and tests, we’ve bitched about those before as well :) I’d still prefer any other method to try and demonstrate that I’ve learnt something or that I’ve developed some skills. I couldn’t agree more though that nothing is as useless as doing an exam where you never get to see the paper again after it’s been marked. Our education system is less and less about learning and more about qualifications. It doesn’t help that there are so many students who care so little about learning and attend only to obtain a certificate.

  4. Alex said,

    Monototo, I’ve worked out what I can say to my parents to atleast give me a better chance it doing it. Last time they barely gave me a chance to talk about it. I barely needed it anyway, I didn’t really have anything prepared. But this time, I know what to do as I’ve learnt from last time. Also, don’t be too worried about health. Others have tried it and have done it for over a year with no negative health effects. On the off chance I actually succeed I probably won’t keep it up for a year and if I do suffer any ill effects, it should only be temporary. Though I will be careful and if it does work I’ll have to get a doctor check up every few months or so. I am almost completely grown and developed, so I’m not too worried about stunting my growth.

  5. nimeton said,

    there to get their certificate :)

    sorry :(

  6. monototo said,

    ^Nimeton, there there there. fixed.

    Good luck Alex. I was never very good at rebellion. I thought rebellion was for immature punks who wanted to fight their parents and society. This may seem obvious, but it turns out, rebellion’s not just for stoners and destructive anarchists. Rebellion is required of all revolutionaries – no matter how humble. To do anything differently, first we have to break out of the mould. This involves some risk and usually provokes resistance.

  7. Avarine said,

    what a great post.

    i have explained to a lot of my piano students many times that practice is simply repeating the actions enough times so that the body remembers the movements. go muscle memory! what you said about using thought to train the muscles reminded me of a book about piano playing, which advocated a similar technique in the early stages of learning a score. the author of this book thought you should first read a few bars, think through how to play it without actually playing it, and only then, physically play it. an arduous process to be sure, but a valuable one. not that i’d ever have the patience to employ it.

    mostly when i was in school i didn’t question things. but i remember once, in year ten, i did less than the minimal amount of work required for an assignment because i believed it not worth my time. i even told my teacher as much. the me of today would never have done that for fear of hurting the feelings of the teacher! this wasn’t the norm for me though, mostly i tried to conform and do as asked. i think i mainly believed that the work we were required to do reflected how smart they expected us to be. if you know what i mean. perhaps in that respect they’re dumbing us down by not giving us the chance to push ourselves and to excel.

  8. monototo said,

    Thanks Avarine.

    I agree, mental training and visualisation are effective at decreasing learning time, there’s tonnes of literature out there about it. But like you, I rarely practice what I preach. Actually one place where I do utilise it a lot is when I’m trying to master a new beat on my drum kit. There’s too much going on at once to get it right on the fly, but if i close my eyes and play the beat in my head and then try and match the sounds to the body movement I normally find it easier.

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