Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

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Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

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Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

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At last—the recipe for limitless, lifelong learning (and remembering) is here! Ingredients include: bean bags, buckets, Mark Twain, England’s monarchs, and some elbow grease.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Writer Peter Brown translates the science into laymen terms as the experts combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.

Critique: Despite roaming through complex fields like neurology and psychology, this book never feels dense or esoteric. In arranging the content for each chapter, the co-authors also cleverly employ the optimal learning methods they discover. As a result, information snowballs. The reader re-encounters and continually retains more and more of the book’s core concepts. Done poorly, this technique can become a broken record. Here, it always arrives fresh as Farmer’s Market produce.

The authors’ primary goal is to upend the “golden rules” about how we think we learn. Conventionally, we believe that learning anything “the hard way” is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.

The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.

Why?

Image by Bryce Miller. (CC BY 2.0)

Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.

The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.

How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.

“Tossing the Bean Bag” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.

Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.

How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.

So, how do Mark Twain and England’s monarchs factor into durable learning? You’ll see (and likely never forget) when you read the book.

Felicity by Mary Oliver

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Was the 2 a.m. emergency room really the best place to tease open the knots life ties between love and loss? I had no choice. I could not be anywhere else.

Oliver, Mary. Felicity. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Mary Oliver’s poetry and essay collections normally focus on nature. She lays bare her raptures and heartaches shared with grasshoppers, wild geese, or murk-water fishes. But in the collection, she presents the raptures and heartaches inevitable when loving both the self and another person.

Critique: I was, as I mentioned, in the emergency room as I grappled with Oliver’s collection of love poems. Specifically, I was in the waiting room while my friend was back in the exam room. Her bout with food poisoning required me to drive while she tipped her head in a bucket the way a honeybee tips down a pistil, hunting for nectar. When my friend texted to explain her soggy-verging-on-foamy, prostrate predicament, I calmly grabbed the essentials: purse, books, water bottle, car keys.

While the docs hooked my friend to an IV drip that would quell her nausea and rehydrate her cells, I settled in for some poetry.

The books I brought along were both by Mary Oliver, but they were separated by over a decade, with Owls and Other Fantasies published back in 2003. Comparing the two, I was struck by the brevity of the poems in Felicity. Oliver has always been able to go for the jugular, but in the latest work, she seemed to have given up stalking the reader in a slow, supple way. Her writing in Felicity is both ruthless and mercifully instantaneous.

Google Mary Oliver and you’ll find a lot of synopses curtailing her work to the keen description of nature. Be warned. Describe is not what Oliver does. You could say she teaches us how to experience and love the world for the first time.

You may think that in your daily life you’ve tousled your hair in some fling or flirtation with your external environment, but then you read Oliver and you realize all you’ve known is surface friction. External penetrates internal and vice versa and you are intimately aware that you had never seen the world like that. Until Oliver, you had never seen a storm as a “shaggy, howling sky-beast” or lightning as a “printed…sizzling unreadable language.”

But now your eyes are wide open and you are madly in love with this world and quite certain it is madly in love with you.

And so the most accurate way to articulate Oliver’s craft is to say that she virgins the world for us.

Felicity is a different assortment. Rather than write about nature, Oliver opens our eyes (and bodies) to that blissful parachuteless skydive that is love and its nature. The first section of the collection, The Journey, assembles experiences and observations that I read as learning to love the world and yourself in it. “The point is,” Oliver concludes, “you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

Acquiring the skill and fervor required to love yourself above all else–not in petty selfishness, but rather infinite downy kindness–is what opens the door to truly loving another (and being loved in return), which becomes the focus of the second section, Love. And just as you might not, on your own, see a storm as a shaggy sky-beast, you might not have considered kissing to be like the opening of a flower, only faster. Like a fearless journalist, Oliver shares with readers the full spectrum, from love’s nascent, bottle-rocket budding to its unavoidable, withered snuffing.

Yes, we must acknowledge the loss. Is it really love if you can’t lose it?

Mug Collection.” CC BY 2.0

Love is not steadfast like your coffee mug collection. Nor is it sensible like a sweater or a wallet. It is fleeting–even if you get to love someone, The One, for more decades than there are toes on your feet. The One, your one, will one day die. But that is no excuse not to love with all you’re made of. As Oliver explains, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution/ when headlong might save a life,/ even, quite possibly, your own.”

Which brings the collection to its third and final section, Felicity. Bearing only one poem, this section seems to conclude that the key to everlasting and ever-expanding bliss boils down to a few simple elements: notice the world, welcome the difficult, unanswerable questions, and have a person in your life whose hand you best like to hold.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

While we tend to chuck microbes into a general “yuck” pile of germs in need of disinfecting, truth is, only a slim minority of species are harmful. The rest are not just beneficial, but essential to the ebb and flow of life on this planet. For instance, how did life evolve into multi-cellular, diverse creatures like birds, bugs, hippos, and humans? Because two kinds of microbes teamed up to make finding food and gene replication more successful. In other words, life as we know it would not exist without these critters.

Yong, Ed. I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acclaimed science writer, Ed Yong shares the latest research spewing out from studies on the tiniest creatures in the universe. As it turns out, small is by no means insignificant. Microbes—also known as germs—influence everything from global weather, our DNA, and even our choices and thoughts! Get ready for a real invasion of the body snatchers!

(Hint: This book makes for an excellent companion text to John Green’s latest YA knock-out, Turtles All the Way Down!)

Critique: Microbes are multitudinous, both in your body and throughout the planet. Every millimeter of every tooth in your mouth houses an entirely unique population of microbes designed to do something useful in your mouth. Same goes for every millimeter of your gums! Don’t forget your fingers, toes, armpits, and genital regions. But microbial significance goes way beyond teeth and testicles! Animals need the chemical byproducts of microbes—called odors, pheromones, and scents—to communicate, navigate, and survive.

Also, it may interest you to know that the human DNA chain does not contain all the instructions we need to shape our bodies to maturity. We borrow instructions from the DNA of microbes in our environment. In other words, your basic DNA is programmed to provide you with intestines, but it is not programmed with instructions for how those tubes ought to bend and fold in order to fit inside your body. Those directions come from a particular microbe. Plenty of other organisms copy this tactic because it is a smart, efficient way to reliably funnel genes over many generations.

Oh, oh! Budding research suggests that where you decide to live or places you yearn to travel or the foods you crave or the partners you attract may all be the result of your microbes spurring you to go out get new kinds of microbes. This theory has some scary implications; first and foremost, that who you think you are may be an illusion. You are not a single identity, but a composite of trillions—an inner horde of bugs that sometimes choruses in unison.

Yong may not have Rebecca Skloot’s ability to weave live action scenes through hunks of exposition (indeed, he loses as many of these threads as he begins), but his descriptions of complex scientific concepts and microbial functions are so engaging and accessible, the reader won’t actually want those woven scenes getting in the way. The best indicator of how good this book is lies in how I geeked out for weeks after I read it. Cocktail party small talk, trips to a public restroom, inviting friends over for dinner, geshundeiting a sneezing stranger, work meetings, waiting in line at the post office—heck, even this blog post—became one more opportunity to share yet another fascinating tidbit of mind-blowing microbial information.

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Warning: this book may induce wild dancing and self-acceptance!

Andreae, Giles. Giraffes Can’t Dance. Illus. Guy Parker-Rees. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Gerald the giraffe wants to be like all the other animals and join the jungle dance, but his long legs make him too clumsy.

Critique: The illustrations are bright, colorful, and energetic. Parker-Rees makes the difficult seem easy by depicting a giraffe in graceful pirouettes, assertive disco spears, and acrobatic back flips!

Caution to parents or librarians reading this book aloud: the rhythm of Andreae’s rhyming text is likely to spur dancing.

Thematically, the text seems spot on, imparting to readers that you can’t dance to the beat of other creature’s drums. The best tune is the one already inside you. In other words, the real you is already inside and all you have to do is let it out.

I doubt Thich Nhat Hahn could argue with that!