Learning Is No Joke

“My wife had a brain tumor.  She’s fine, but I have to tell you that as a parent of 5 kids, there were times I thought, wow – if she dies, those poor kids are going to be put up for adoption!” – Jim Gaffigan

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If you haven’t seen Jim Gaffigan (@jimgaffigan) live, you are missing out.  As someone who dabbled in stand-up a lifetime ago, I can honestly say it took me 2 years to create 12 decent minutes where the audience laughed mostly at the times I expected.  This guy (and his writing-partner-wife) have been cranking out top-notch, clean jokes for years now.  They’re a joke machine. 

Recently, my wife and I saw his Noble Ape tour with some other couples.  We saw the tour about 6 months ago, but had an interesting conversation about it just recently.   We were reminiscing with some of the other people (note – all educated people) about the event.  Keep in mind we were all highly anticipating the show, we already knew and liked his body of work, and we absolutely loved the show.  In fact, for several days after, we would come back to the jokes and laugh again and again.

But now, 6 months later, it was interesting that none of us could remember any of the jokes.  We had a few moments of, “Wasn’t there a bit about…?”  But collectively it was unbelievably hard to remember the super-funny stuff. 

In the midst of this recent conversation, I kind of went into experiment mode.  I realized what was happening, so I pushed it a bit, acting more as facilitator than anything else.  (How’s that for a buzz-kill?)  But after some prodding, nobody could come up with the material. 

Why?

Again, we are all educated people, fully capable of remember things.  We were highly motivated.  We enjoyed it.  We even reviewed the material for at least a week if not a bit longer.  But now, after less than half a year, we can’t recall any of it?

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I compare that against a far less-clean comedian from the 1980’s.  I remember buying (and hiding from my minister-father) Eddie Murphy’s Delirious album when I was a kid.  I listened to it 5-10 times that first week and came back to re-listen to it a dozen or more times over several years.  As a result, I can probably still tell you large chunks of the material.  My wife is similar.  Perhaps she didn’t listen to it quite as much as I did, but she heard it a handful of times throughout several years and much of it stuck. 

The difference is obvious.  We employed what researchers today know to be crucial to learning anything, from comedy to math to history.  We leveraged interleaving, spaced repetition, and differentiated practice.  We used forced retrieval of bits and pieces of that Eddie Murphy routine over and over again.  When at a party, it was easy to fall into the family jokes (Goonie-Goo-Goo!) or the burger routine.  If talking about people from the 80’s, the Mr. T stuff came to mind.  Even the GI Joe bit in the bathtub got my wife and I giggling when we used to give our little girl a bath. 

During this blog writing, I also noted the difference between Interleaving and massed / blocked practice, which so many educators mistakenly recommend to students or practice in the context of course content teaching.  My parents had some Cosby and Klein records too, but with the exception of the Noah routine, I only listened to them for a few months one year.  I may have listened to the routines 5-10 times during that time, but I never returned to them.  As such, I couldn’t really tell you any of that material today.  Not even the topics. 

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It’s interesting (at least to me) just how far cognitive science and education psychology research has come.  While Ebbinghaus started studying memory and his famous “Forgetting Curve” more than 150 years ago, little of that information made it into education.  Unfortunately, we have a lot of historical baggage to contend with, making real learning much harder than it needs to be.  We have generations of practitioners doing the only thing they know how to do (that which was modeled by former instructors), despite so much research and evidence suggesting a major pivot is in order.  But we’re getting there.  It’s just good to know that what we do “know” about learning is so easily reinforced if you know what to look for. 

So, if you can, see how these important education concepts apply in your own life.  Maybe it’s not about Murphy’s Ice Cream Truck routine nor the Hot Pockets bit from Gaffigan that come to mind, but you likely have a record of the power of these crucial concepts in learning: interleaving, spaced repetition, and varied practice.  At the same time, you can probably recall huge chunks of massed / blocked instruction for which you have no memory whatsoever.  That’s the starting place.  Next read through Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 2015), How People Learn (Bransford, 2000), Mindset (Dweck, 2007), Brain Rules (Medina, 2014), The End of Average (Rose, 2016).  Then, go back to your class, the department curriculum, or the program outcomes and see what needs to be retooled.  As your content isn’t going to be nearly as funny, entertaining, nor include as motivated an audience as stand-up comedians, it is more crucial than ever that we use the most effective practices possible for our students.

Good luck and good learning.