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.

The Everest Disaster Trilogy Challenge

Read these three books, my friend gushed, and you’ll experience a gummy, disorienting waltz with truth, memory, and trauma.

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. Jon Krakauer, Narr. New York: Random House Audio, 2007. CD.

Genre: nonfiction memoir

Summary: Krakauer documents his experiences during the Mount Everest disaster in 1996 when 8 climbers died in a horrendous blizzard. He traces the many conflicting motives and oversights which may have contributed to deadly mistakes.

Critique: Recently, a good friend challenged me to read what she calls the “Mount Everest Disaster Trilogy.” Three survivors’ accounts—Krakauer being one—of what happened or failed to happen on the mountain during a significant storm that claimed over a dozen lives. The three accounts overlap as often as they contradict. The experience of reading all three, my friend assured me, was a gummy, disorienting waltz with truth, memory, and trauma.

Because my friend is the Cookie Monster when it comes to nonfiction, I accepted the challenge with all due gravitas.

“RoadTrip” (CC BY 2.0)

With a couple hundred miles between me and my winter holiday destination, I picked up the audio book edition of Krakauer’s famous (some say infamous) memoir read by the author himself. The controversies surrounding his memoir were and are many. Did Krakauer skew the narrative, effectively  tilting more blame on the excursion guides, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer—two of the world’s best who also died in the blizzard—only to overshadow his potential cowardice? Should he have come out with a magazine article and a memoir so swiftly on the heels of the tragedy? Was this insensitive to grieving families? Was he even in a fit state of mind to recount the events? To his credit, Krakauer acknowledges each of these pressure points and does his best to relieve them. Also to his credit, he did not rely solely on his own memory. He conducted interviews with other survivors and the memoir includes testimonies that totally upend his own recollections.

After listening to the first disc, I was stupefied by the structural design or chaos the writer had chosen. The narrative jumped…no, it ricocheted between Krakauer’s setup and backstory (his youth spent climbing, how a travel magazine hired him to ascend the mountain with a guided expedition) and historical background on the first attempts to top Everest in the early 1900s.

By trade, nonfiction writers are daring and innovative with structure. How could they not when the genre’s granddaddy, John McPhee, structured his writings around everything from lowercase letters to tennis courts or the Monopoly board? But Krakauer’s construct was verging on pure genius. So disorienting! Surely he was trying to give readers the felt experience of high altitude sickness and its reality-bending deliriums.

As the CD carousel switched to disc 2, I reached for the pause button. No way was it safe to drug my attention while driving!

Then, I saw it: my car’s audio player was set to shuffle! Krakauer’s structure was not deliberately disordered or artfully rearranged. As it turned out, his structure was nothing out of the ordinary—a straightforward progression through times and places and events.

Actually, Krakauer’s style included a rather obtrusive, rather clockwork habit: every time he introduced a new “cast member,” he paused the unfolding events on Everest so that a minutely detailed account of that person’s life up to that moment could be shared. Among writers, this longwinded setup is known as the “info dump,” and it is generally discouraged in fiction and nonfiction because it pulls the reader away from the main attraction. Of course, plenty of writers skillfully employ these tangents to create tension and knot up the suspense. No doubt Krakauer aimed for that very effect.

While I cannot report his aim hit the mark for me, I can say it approached the bull’s eye whenever I switched on the shuffle button.

Next up in the Mount Everest Disaster Trilogy: The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest by Beck Weathers. Boukreev was employed with one of the expedition guides on Everest. His ability to scale the mountain’s 29,000+ feet was practically unmatched, often ascending without an oxygen tank. Krakauer accused Boukreev of negligence in 1996 because he went without oxygen while guiding clients to the top. The alleged result: when the storm hit, Boukreev was in no condition to help anyone. Not surprisingly, Boukreev’s book rebuts this depiction.

Beck Weathers was one of the paying climbers being guided to Everest’s summit. No less than three times, he was literally left for dead. Each time, he managed to slog his way out of danger or recover just enough from severe hypothermia and frostbite. To be sure, while listening to Krakauer explain his and others’ decisions to leave Weathers behind I often cried, “Foul!” Selfish cowardice colored the reasons in neon strokes. Yet, Weathers’ memoir reportedly spends little time finger-pointing and more time exploring life’s true value, especially in the wake of second, third, and fourth chances.

 

(Featured image “Everest” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.)

Eating Stone by Ellen Meloy

MelloyE_eatingstoneThis author is really for e.v.e.r.y.o.n.e on your holiday shopping list. Warning: you will become the heroine dealer of literature. Friends will stalk you, shaky, half-dressed, begging, “Got any more of that?”

Meloy, Ellen. Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Meloy spends a full season tracking the big horn sheep of the Southwest. The task is not easy. The animals are going extinct and can hide faster than dissipating smoke. She observes them while observing mankind’s tragic disconnect from nature and all things wild–the wildness outside and the wildness within the soul.

Critique: Meloy’s writing is powerful. Her imagery will intoxicate the reader. To see the world through her eyes is to see a fantasy land. In her prose, the desert is sexy, curvaceous, hot and heaving. Unassuming frost-covered bushes are silvery birdcages. And the big horns are everything from ghosts to popping toast!

The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation

The holiday gift guide continues! Here’s one for the history buff in your life. Or the reluctant reader. Or the pot head who rails on and on about states rights vs federal authority.

the-gettysburg-address-a-graphic-adaptation-mcconnell-hennesseyHennessy, Jonathan. The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation. Illus. Aaron McConnell. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction Graphic Novel

Summary: Hennessy and McConnell use the innovative and fast-moving format of the graphic novel mode to tell the story behind the Gettysburg Address, what prompted it, what it changed, and why it mattered to America and the world.

Critique: The cover of this book claims to retell this moment of history through Lincoln’s words. I was immediately drawn in because Lincoln is one of the most eloquent writers e.v.e.r. I assumed from that cover claim that the graphic novel would rely only on Lincoln’s writings. It turns out that is not the case, but the book hardly suffers as a result. Hennessy’s script is excellently composed and draws on a ton of primary sources. The writing is clear, even when dealing with ideologically or philosophically tough stuff. And combined with McConnell’s excellent artwork, each page is densely loaded. But the arc is compelling, engaging, and hard to put down.

The book opens like a movie with a series of live action scenes: a family returns to the war carnage on the front lawn of their home. Cut to: President Lincoln receiving word of the outcome of battle at Gettysburg. Then the narrative steps back and an omniscient narrator takes over. Acting like the voice-over in a film, this narrator begins to explain what is going on. The imagery takes on more of a mix-and-match composition. Sometimes a page might have as many as 9 panels, and each one is treated like an individual block of information, rather than one piece in a sequence of actions (which is what you usually get in graphic novels). Often the panels are briefly footnoted, informing the reader who or what is being depicted. Senator So-and-So from Tennessee 1865 or Governor Whatshisname from Maine 1848 or the Such-and-Such building.

But overall, the artwork works hard to embody the principles under discussion in the text. For instance, as the text presents the two founding ideologies of the nature of government in America, the artwork depicts the busts of the two historical figures alive and debating their sides from atop their marble, museum columns. At other times, the imagery is a little tougher to follow. For example, when the text shares a quote from a then-famous newspaper, the picture gives readers a drawing of the newspaper building or printing house with a word bubble popping out of a window to contain the quote. Or to represent the idea of sovereignty, the artist has Lincoln holding a shiny white ball with a modern power on/off button (such as the one you see on your computer). At first glance, it seems as if Lincoln is holding the precursor to Apple’s iPod. (Judging by the look on his face, he clearly wishes it were less literally “appled” and more pocket-friendly.)

Structurally, the book takes what I call the rabbit hole approach. It establishes the “present” moment: the political climate, the historical context, what happened at Gettysburg and why Lincoln needed to make a speech there. Then, it dips down the rabbit hole of time and moves backwards, to that “four score and seven years ago” when the Founding Fathers were first conceptualizing a new form of democratic governance. Then it dips further down, or shifts further back, and back again, and back again, going all the way back to the conditions of North American continent post-dinosaurs. Then it walks the reader forwards again getting all the way to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Hugely effective, efficient, and easy to follow. Given all the recent conflict between communities and policing authorities, this book made for a sobering, yet illuminating read for the mature and leveled way it navigated issues like abuses of power, authority over the masses, and more!

Whether you have kids tapping into this era of American history, or you’d like a refresher, this book is well worth nabbing off the shelf! (And if you read it now, you’ll be able to look super-knowledgeable in all your patriotic 4th of July conversations coming up!)