The most important research on learning I’ve read

Someone has posted it on line, so here it is !

Deferred Feedback Sharply Dissociates Implicit and Explicit Category Learning
J. David Smith, Joseph Boomer, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Jessica L. Roeder, Barbara A. Church, and F. Gregory Ashby  Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 447-457

I’ve been mulling this article since the summer of 2014, when it was published. It’s life altering.

Unfortunately, if you’re not in the field, reading the study isn’t easy. The press release is intelligible but brief. 

For the moment, the thing to know is that this study probably proves, finally, that we have two separate and distinct learning systems inside our brains.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists have been talking about “dual systems” and “dual systems theory” forever, but no one had nailed it down. Now they have.

The two systems are separate and distinct in the sense that if you turn one system “off” the other still learns. They’re “dissociable.” 

And: the 2 systems learn differently.

“Deferred feedback” looks at category-learning, but as far as I can tell these two systems learn everything, including physical skills. 
~

Compare and contrast

The chart below is correct (I believe), but it says nothing about the relationship between the two learning systems–which no one seems to understand yet. 

So, while I’ve put “vocabulary” under explicit learning, I’m fairly sure vocabulary can also be picked up via implicit learning. 

And given what I’ve seen in the L2 literature about grammar learning, it seems clear that some explicit learning helps with grammar, too–at least, with the kind of grammar you use in formal writing, as well as with learning the grammar of a second language.

Obviously, no one learns the conversational grammar of his or her native language at school. 

In short, the two systems seem both to compete and to support each other in some way no one has worked out.
~

Information-integration learning Rule-based learning 
“Life” learning “School” learning
Unconscious Conscious
Implicit learning: you can’t necessarily put what you’ve learned in words (& if you can, words come to you later) Explicit learning: you can put what you’ve learned in words
Intuition, everyday categories (good versus bad, dog versus cat), social rules, habit Formal concepts, theories, disciplines, etc.
Grammar Vocabulary
Learns relatively slowly Learns quickly
Can’t learn “offline” (learning stops after a “lesson” is over) Can learn “offline” (learning continues after a lesson is over)
Must have immediate feedback – students must know whether their answer was right or wrong after each answer or no learning occurs Can learn with delayed feedback – students can get their tests back days later and still learn from their mistakes)
Can learn several things at the same time (e.g.: can learn the orientation and the width of a stimulus) Can learn just one thing at a time (can learn the orientation or the width of a stimulus, but not both at the same time)

~
From the abstract:

Deferred reinforcement qualitatively eliminated implicit, information-integration category learning. It left intact explicit, rule-based category learning.

Teaching formal grammar is teaching vocabulary

Doug left this link to a post on the difficulty of searching Google when you don’t know what the thing you’re looking for is called:

What do you do when you want to look something up but you don’t know what it’s called? Sometimes you can just type what you know into a search engine and it will sort things out for you. I just typed “part of the car that covers the engine” and I got:

Part of the car that covers the engine pixelcity2_hood

[snip]

Sadly, things are not always this easy. Right now I know what I want to make but I don’t know what to search for. I know what it looks like and how it behaves, but not how it’s created or what you call it. In fact, I can even draw a picture of it. It looks kind of like a stained glass window.

Where college writing is concerned, not knowing the search term is a chronic problem.

It’s a problem because nobody teaches formal grammar any more. When I say “any more,” I mean not since the 1950s, pretty much.

My students have usually heard of “subject,” “predicate,” “noun,” “verb,” and “sentence,” but that’s about it.

So nobody can look anything up. Not on Google, not in a handbook. Especially not a handbook, which, unlike Google, doesn’t try to guess what your question is. 

Here’s an example.

In my first semester of teaching, I think it was, I wanted to know which was correct (in formal writing):

Do you mind my sitting here?

or

Do you mind me sitting here?

I was pretty sure “my” was right, but only because in years gone by I had always said and written “my.” But that was then. In recent years, I had started saying and writing “me,” so I wasn’t sure. (I take the fact that my usage had changed to mean that the rule was changing.)

I had no idea how to look up the answer.

I did know what the word “possessive” meant in the context of grammar, but I didn’t know what a word that ended in “ing” was called.

So I didn’t know to search forpossessives in front of gerunds.”

I eventually figured it out, but it would have been a lot easier if someone had just told me what a gerund was when I was 10.

Vocabulary is a good thing.

People should teach it.
~

Postscript

I’ve just skimmed Paul Brians’ page on gerunds and pronouns. I like this:

This is a subtle point, and hard to explain without using the sort of technical language I usually try to avoid; but if you can learn how to precede gerunds with possessive pronouns, your writing will definitely improve in the eyes of many readers.

It’s not wrong to write “do you mind me sitting here?”

But it does sound different from “do you mind my sitting here,” and it makes a different impression.

That matters.

When you teach writing, part of what you’re doing is giving students the means to control the impression they make.

How many words do you need to know ?

Research indicates that if the students know about 98% of the words on a page, then they can read it quickly and with high levels of comprehension. Below 90% (one unknown word in 10) the reading becomes frustrating and slow requiring a lot of dictionary use and comprehension suffers badly.
The Extensive Reading Foundation’s Guide to Extensive Reading

I first came across this research while teaching English 109, and it sure corresponds to my experience. 

If my students knew just 90% of the words in a text, they couldn’t read it at all, even with the definitions of new vocabulary words typed in the margins. 

I’m sure the problem is working memory.

Every time you look up a new word you have to remember a) what you were just reading, b) the ‘name’ of the new word, and c) the new word’s definition.

Plus you have to moosh all these things together into a meaningful whole, an operation that is also performed by working memory.

And since you know only 90% of the words, you have to do this over and over again, which erodes your memory of the other words you just looked up, not to mention your memory (and, consequently, your understanding) of the essay as a whole. 

It’s like trying to multiply 79 by 6 inside your head. You have to remember the 79, you have to remember the 6, you have to remember the subproducts (is that the right word ? I don’t remember !), and you have to perform the calculation. 

It’s too much.

This is why schools should teach vocabulary.

Babadum and “decontextualized learning”

I’ve just found this site today — it’s amazing.

I’m not ready for it, but a couple of months from now — look out !

That said, I should probably add that I have no idea how it works, or whether it has a spaced-repetition algorithm. 

Still, the images are so much fun that the site’s ability to hold my interest is enough to make me use it.
~

Decontextualized learning

I mentioned the other day that I’m using 3 language apps: Duolingo, Lingvist, and now Memrise, too. Eventually I’ll get around to Glossika (because John McWhorter likes it), though maybe not till I’m putting more time into Spanish.

And, of course, one of these days I’ll actually use Gabriel Wyner’s Pronunciation Trainers, which I should have done before I did anything else, but didn’t.

I bought them.

I didn’t use them.

Because Anki.

One day I will be an Anki person, but that day is not this day. (Wyner has an app coming out in August, so, yes, I will be adding another app to the queue.)

Anyway, my thinking in fanning out among apps was that I didn’t want the words I learned to be stuck inside Duolingo. I wanted them to generalize to the real world.

I don’t know whether failure-to-generalize is a real concern, but I did find an interesting passage on decontextualized vocab learning in Paul Nation’s What do you need to know to learn a foreign language?

The most important deliberate learning activity is using word cards …. You need to take control of this very effective activity and keep using it to learn new vocabulary and even more importantly to keep revising previously met vocabulary. You may find that some teachers advise against using this strategy largely because of the belief that all vocabulary learning needs to occur in context. They are wrong. It is important that there is vocabulary learning in context through meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency development, but it is also important that there is deliberate decontextualised learning through the use of word cards, because such learning is very efficient and effective. Some people also believe that because word card learning involves first language translation, it encourages thinking in the first language rather than the foreign language. Research however has shown that in the beginning and intermediate stages of language learning the first and foreign languages are unavoidably stored together. Using bilingual word cards is a very effective deliberate learning strategy that you should use.

More fun with cringe-worthy phrases

In the Post last Friday: a highly enjoyable list of supposedly cringe-worthy phrases you’re probably using in the office ! (Note punctuation placement, please.)

re: cringe-worthy, I dissent.

There’s nothing wrong with expressions like “heavy lifting,” “win-win,” “paradigm shift,” “elephant in the room,” etc. All of these mots mean something real. That’s why people use them.

That said, I do agree that neither “Give 110 percent” nor “There’s no I in team” have much to offer in the way of communicative oomph.

I also admit to being tired of hearing “going forward” and “reach out.” Blech. My feelings on the subject are neither here nor there, however. Both expressions still mean what they mean, and people will continue to use them.

One more thing. “Boil the ocean

What is that?

If I have to ask, then you’re probably not using “boil the ocean” in the office, at least not often enough for “boil the ocean” to have become cringeworthy.

In short, WAPO has published a perfectly fine list of things to say at the office — so perfectly fine that if I were teaching a course on Business English for L2 speakers, I would advise my students to commit it to memory.

Here’s my beef with the list.

Toolkit.

Toolkit ! 

The word toolkit, which people demonstrably are using way too much in the office, (not to mention in book titles) is not on the list of cringe-worthy things people spend too much time using in the office.

[pause]

I was thinking I could end this post with some kind of reference to boiling the ocean, but I guess not.

Bonus points: Here’s McKinsey using the word toolkit to make no sense whatsoever.

Extended lean toolkit for total productivity

See?

Useless.

Has English been dialing down the effects of the Norman Conquest?

The Norman Conquest involved words as well as weapons: an invading army of over 10,000 Old French vocabulary words. About 75 percent of these are still in current use. But while their endurance is impressive, a sinister question emerges: what happened to the other 25 percent?

And are still more French words on their way out?

I see a new invader, a fifth column deriving from within the pre-Norman Germanic core of English. Its M.O.? Two quintessentially English tools: verb + adverb = verb; and verb + adverb = noun. Its purpose? To banish from everyday speech (and from everyday writing, and even from more formal communications) any remaining whiff of French elitism.

Consider:

  •  “blow back” for “repercussion”
  •  “dig in” for “entrench”
  • “drill down” for “analyze”
  •  “push back” for “resist”
  • “take away” for “conclusion”
  •  “walk [it] back” for “retract”/“retreat”

In other words, when I drill down into everyday English, this is my takeaway: the linguistic blow back from the Norman Conquest involves a gradual walk back from words of French origin—part of our more general push back against elitism and digging in against privilege.

Hmm… involve, origin, general, elitism, privilege… We’ve still got a few words to go.

And see:
Speaking of the Norman Conquest

Very raccoony

Two nights ago, just past 11 pm, the dogs took off for parts unknown.

That was my fault.

Ed had taken off their fence collars because it was time for everyone to go to bed–go to bed, not light out for the territories, I thought we all agreed on thatbut then the dogs were agitating to be let out, so I let them out.

Why did I let two young, hyperactive field Labs outside after 11 pm without their fence collars?

Because autopilot. The dogs want out, I let them out.1 Presto chango. There’s no intervening thought process involved.

After I let the dogs out, I forgot about them (autopilot) until Ed came into the bedroom and said, “Are the dogs in their crates?”

Umm, no.

One thing led to another, and the rest of the night turned into a lost-dog-finding lollapalooza that culminated in my registering 3,300 steps on my new FitBit before dawn. Thirty-three hundred steps, two hours sleep. Good times.

Moving on to the raccoon part . . . around 2 am I was awakened by what sounded like multiple dogs screaming — screaming, shrieking, squealing — it was an unbelievable racket; at least two blocks away but still loud enough to wake me.

It had to be Luke and Lucy, who sounded freaked out of their minds, but what kind of animal were they fighting?

A coyote?

Two coyotes?

More importantly, were they winning? 

Both dogs eventually made their way home, but not without igniting a second drama when Luke showed up without Lucy. Lucy is Luke’s half-sister. She’s younger and smaller than Luke, probably small enough and young enough to lose a fight with a coyote–definitely too small to prevail against two coyotes–and she is devoted to Luke. And she wasn’t with him.

She finally turned up an hour later, sporting a minor injury to one paw but otherwise no worse for wear, although she refused to leave the house the entire next day. Which is not like Lucy or any other member of her tribe. Field Labs live for outside.

So yesterday I was filling Katharine in on the night’s events, and the subject of raccoons came up, probably because it had crossed my mind that Luke and Lucy might have been shrieking at a raccoon. Turns out the raccoons in Katharine’s neighborhood are incredibly scrappy. They fight all the time. They used to fight just in warm weather, but now they fight year round. It’s like West Side Story around there, only for raccoons.

Plus they’re loud. They’re so loud Katharine had actually made a tape of a recent altercation. So naturally I Googled loud raccoon fight, and behold.

This popped up, too:

loud_raccoon_fight_-_Google_Search 3
Given the fact that raccoons spend so much time screaming and yelling and carrying on that they’ve become famous for it on the Internet, I’m thinking it had to be a raccoon Luke and Lucy were fighting, not a coyote. Raccoon, or raccoons, plural.

Anyway, this afternoon, while working with one of my students, I came across a Daily Language Review exercise that included the word “raccoon.”

Googling to make sure “raccoon” has two c’s, I found this:

RACOONS PASS FAMOUS INTELLIGENCE TEST—BY UPENDING IT:2

In the new study, the researchers presented captive raccoons with a cylinder containing a floating marshmallow that was too low to grab. Next, they showed the raccoons how dropping stones in the water would raise the marshmallow.

Two of the eight raccoons successfully repeated the behavior, dropping the stones to get the marshmallow. A third took matters into her own hands: She climbed onto the cylinder and rocked it until it tipped over, giving her access to the sweet treat.

“That was something we hadn’t predicted,” and indeed, had designed against, says study leader Lauren Stanton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Wyoming.

“It reaffirms how innovative and how creative they are in problem-solving.”

Adds Suzanne MacDonald, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, “I thought it was very raccoon-y that one of them figured out how to just tip the whole apparatus over”—much like they do with trash cans.

Very racoon-y.”

That is a fabulous descriptor!

I’m trying to think of something I can apply it to other than a raccoon.

1. Comma splice intentional.

2. News flash: Some sites spell raccoon with two c’s, some with one. I don’t know why.

And see:
Also very raccoony