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Education through emulation.
September 9, 2012
5:34 pm

Now here's a topic that has always fascinated me. In the past few years, I've been constantly force fed a lot of information through various schools. And something that would constantly pique my attention, was whenever a student would raise his or her hand and then ask the question 'why do we need to learn this?' A question that, sadly, is interpreted by a lot of teachers as an excuse for not having to pay attention in class when an appropriate explanation was not delivered as to why that one specific subject they are being taught, is important. A second thing I've learned (don't worry, I'll tie it all together in a moment, I just need to deliver the 'chunks' first), is just how absolutely incredibly powerful that our visual memory can be. This was something I realized before my high school exams, when I was researching neuroscience in my spare time to somewhat learn more about myself and how my brain works, just to see if there was anything of direct practical use to me that could aid me in the upcoming exams and in my life in general (the more you know, right?). It was an incredibly pleasant surprise when I stumbled across Joshua Foer's TED talk, titled "feats of memory anyone can do." Now that sounds like a cheesy title to an article that no one is really going to take seriously anyway, but nothing pointless goes on TED so I reserved 20 minutes of my time to figure out what it was all about.


Now, before I move on from here, it might be a good idea that you go watch his talk (which can be found right here  )if you really want to be able to follow me all the way through what I'm about to suggest. I realize that this subject is a little less 'existential' than other things I've observed being discussed on this particular end of the forum, but I find it quite important to pull it up and shine some light on the matter nonetheless. 


On to the good stuff. I tried messing around a little bit with these methods that Joshua suggested, and I was truly surprised at just how capable I suddenly was at remembering everything, simply because I started systematically converting all my 'inputs' into visualized patterns in my head. And not only was it easier for me to simply memorize everything, it became my whole understanding of what I learned. In other words, as everything slid into place and stayed there much easier and much longer than when I did my usual 'read things over and over again,' I started seeing patterns, which almost in turn worked as a positive feedback loop and strengthened my memory in that particular subject, as I now could hook concepts of understanding into it all. But what does that have to do with students who ask their teachers about reasons for even having to learn anything in the first place? First of all, what we all seek every day is a sense of accomplishment. A lot of people feel that way, especially students who aren't exactly facing situations where they can do something that matters as they're locked in an educational system where what 'matters' is homework and performing well in class. But to what end? Sure, it certainly ensures that they're getting a good grade, something that establishes a decent foothold for them to - if they did well - freely explore the world of possible careers. But how does that resonate with the minds of the students? That in itself is extremely hard to say. Everyone is different from one another, everyone perceives the world differently. So making a generalization about that, would quite frankly be wrong. So I want to rephrase the question and instead consider how it allows the students to resonate with it. How does it open up the minds of the students and promotes self-reflection to get more clear on where they stand? Some of you will probably disagree with me, but I dare say that today's system of education and the presented materials used in said system, hardly promotes that kind of self-reflection at all. It merely gives people the tools, which most of them hardly even know where to apply them in a 'real' environment, outside the walls of the school. That's essentially what today's school is about, at least the ones here in Denmark. Provide the tools but not the answers. Flip that around though, no one was ever required to have the answers, and in the light of what I just said with everyone being different from each other, ultimately it would be very hard to HAVE any answers. No one person can look at a student and just tell them what their perfect choice of career might be.


But what I believe we can do, - and this is where I finally pick up the pace and tie the ends together, so hold on tight - is provide a new environment that helps them look for the answers instead. I propose that we begin seriously considering the effects and possibilities of teaching in a virtual environment, where everything can translate into something that can be immediately useful in the various virtual spaces that are directly designed to utilize these tools, this knowledge that they are given through the education they are taking. And finally, this is where Joshua's TED talk comes into play. Visualization of data, reinterpretation. To give you the idea of what I'm talking about, I'm presenting two ideas I had originally intended to keep secret to prevent them from being stolen. But then I realized that they weren't that much on their own if you don't have the rest of the picture, yet they still allow me to demonstrate the concept quite well. So, let's for a moment pretend that you are once again a student. You are sitting in a Spanish language class. For this one particular class, the answer to the "what can I use it for?"-question is a given (you can talk to people in Spanish). However, what is very far from a given, is understanding the underlying structure of the language itself. And yet the only thing you are going to get from the teacher, is that you should repeat your material over and over again, and eventually you will begin understanding the structure and start seeing how you can use it. While that is true, it can be an incredibly long and frustrating process for a lot of people, and it's certainly not for everyone. So how do we prevent that from growing stale? And most importantly, how do we once again motivate the student who has been having some issues from the start, and is now being told repeatedly by a grading system that they are officially worse than the rest of the class. To begin answering that, we need to go back to a moment in my personal life not long ago. Specifically around the start of the summer in 2012 when I was studying for my exam in Spanish. I had always been struggling with the language, and you can say that I was that student mentioned above, who needed the motivation back, to once again feel a sense of accomplishment as a reward for learning more about the language, instead of just being told that it was good I was 'catching up'. So I studied the language intensively for a week without pause. That insane amount of data being collected in such a short amount of time suddenly made me realize something important: "But... A language is just like a machine. Each type of words functions as a component that can interact with other components under certain conditions, and they are all restricted by each one of their own sets of rules." In conjunction with my newly gained knowledge from Joshua Foer's talk, I started literally visualizing the language as a machine. I started describing the function of each class of words as a component that worked as a specific type of mechanism, with irregular words being a type of fluctuations. It was amazing, suddenly I could remember the name and meaning of every single word-class and how they functioned and interacted with each other. I understood how the machine worked. And then it struck me: "What if I actually did turn it into a machine?" What if I quite literally recreated the system I had visualized up in my head, and directly translated that understanding to other people by letting them view it for themselves instead of having me to explain it. It would be like an old system in a new environment, a fresh take on something ancient, the reinvention of teaching by directly communicating the visual understanding of someone who sees and understands the patterns already. And as someone who is studying video game design in my spare time, I immediately understood how this could be evolved even further. Now we are as far as explaining how the visual memory fits into the picture. But to fully understand the implications of this, I need to take just a moment to explain something that draws upon my knowledge of video game design.


Let's take a look at an example that I can translate into something useful for explaining the next phase of what this 'language construct' can be used for. Most of us probably know the game called 'World of Warcraft'. And to any of you who does not, it's a role playing game with a very large multiplayer, meaning that there are a lot of people playing it with you on the same server, like a virtual community. Now, a peculiar effect I've observed with many of the people that I know who are playing World of Warcraft, is that they always seem to 'come back to the real world' while feeling a sense of accomplishment. In reality, all they have been doing is sitting in front of a screen, guiding around their virtual selves in an environment where practically no interactions made can translate out into real life. None of the gold you find in your game is in any way applicable when you're not in the game. What I believe is happening, is that within the confines of this virtual world, is a community that we can relate to just as well as we relate to people in the real world, it's really playing on our capability of feeling empathy towards other intelligent beings. When you progress in the virtual space, you feel as if you progress in that community. And that to many people, gives them a very strong feeling of having accomplished something. Even if it's a world that is literally designed for you to move forward in various aspects regardless of how you spend your time in there, it still gives off the same feeling as if you've just done something constructive in real life or something that you would define as being 'good'.


So my idea is that we can create a similar world, a virtual space where the characters within are really other people. Imagine if the language construct would gain properties all accordingly to how well you had built it. And those properties would be directly visualized in the virtual space where you could show it off and discuss it with other players. Suddenly you have a complete environment based on what would otherwise look like seemingly dry rules for how to speak a language. You can track how well people are doing, you can measure up, you can find someone on your own level regardless of how well you understand the language, there will always be someone there to compare to and to help guide you on your way. This can make for both a competitive but also a highly supportive environment. And best of all, when you come back out, you don't just have your sense of accomplishment with you, you have literally gotten better at something that 'matters in the real world'. It would in no way have to be restricted to one school running their own closed system either. Anyone interested in learning the language, polishing their skills or simply just helping other people, could essentially be a part of it.


My second idea is very similar to this, but it works a little differently. This time it's about a subject that is a little bit different; math. This one is a little less defined, and is really just to work as an example of visualization in a field that works differently from what I just mentioned. This is to show how it can apply in various fields that are quite different from each other. Lets say that you sit in math class and it is the first time the idea of linear functions is presented to you. The teacher writes "f(x)=ax+b", the function of a straight line in a two-dimensional coordinate system. Now, what puts mathematics apart from language, is mainly that while there are many rules, there is also a very large degree of freedom. You can quite literally type in an absolutely enormous equation without having no knowledge of math at all, and it will still spit out some kind of result in the end. What this essentially does, is that this subject is a lot more open for experimentation and exploration. Here it's all the more about action/reaction, and that can be used to teach about various concepts. Lets use that linear function I mentioned. What's interesting about functions is how they quite literally work like small 'machine boxes' that you can put one value into, to get another. Essentially, it's about putting in an x-value and then the machine chews it through a process and spits out the y-value for that x-value you've given it, giving you the coordinate when x is equal to this, then y is equal to that. Again, this can essentially be turned into something very visual and easily comprehensible. Imagine a coordinate system on to which a box is attached. On the box is the equation that the linear function uses "ax+b". On the side of the coordinate system with the little box in it, pops up a message saying "try to put in a random number in the place of b." You put in a 5 and immediately as a response, a little 'arm' with a dot at its end, comes out of the box and positions the dot on the value 5 on the y-axis. The message moves up a little bit to make way for another one. This time it says "now try to put in another number" you punch in the number 12 and the arm now moves the dot up to the value 12 on the y-axis. Almost immediately you have established a connection visually, something that many teachers (in my experience) often times have a hard time communicating to the students. Lets take another step, the text once again makes way for another sentence "This time, try to put in a number in place of the a" you put in 2 and a line shows up, pointing upwards. Then again it tells you to change the value to a higher number and you observe as the reaction of that turns into the line now going at a steeper angle. Again, action turns into reaction and your ability to observe this visually turns into an understanding of the patterns that make up this system. Essentially it would be possible to implement this system into the same virtual space in which you have the language constructs, which could define yourself in that world even further. Everyone would be a living reflection of their knowledge in the various fields.


I could probably keep writing about this for even longer, but it's a very large subject and I think I've managed to sum it up quite decently. I personally find that the most fascinating side of this, is that it's not limited by future breakthroughs in technology, it's quite literally something that could be created today. We have the knowledge and resources to do it already. It could be like a universal central of intelligence where your character is visual a representation of your mind. And suddenly learning just about anything will make sense, as it all immediately applies in this world.


I'm sorry if I've made anything a little unclear, I was a little tired when writing the last couple of paragraphs. But your thoughts on this would be much appreciated, I always love exploring what can essentially be done today, but the issue was always simply getting the right idea. Now I just hope that someone actually has time to chew all the way through both the 20 minute video and my massive wall of text. Laugh

September 10, 2012
4:12 pm

The memorization technique illustrated in the video works for memorizing long strings of numbers and words in order?

September 12, 2012
5:59 am

CMStewart said
The memorization technique illustrated in the video works for memorizing long strings of numbers and words in order?

It's defined a little 'abstractly' by Joshua, but yes I have generally found it easier to memorize just about everything. From mathematical functions to historical events. But it's really something that you have to sit down and try to figure out for yourself how exactly it is that you want to redefine your data by visualizing it, as we sadly can't look inside each other's heads for examples of ways to do it. Which is why I find it interesting to actually do try and work with said visualization, digitally. If you can't look inside someone's head, that someone can at least outsource his or her 'visual' interpretation of the data through systems similar to what I suggested. Writing text is essentially cognitive outsourcing. But this could be the next step of ways to outsource data more specifically, rather than trying to abstractly explain it through a string of text that you then in turn hope stirs the same visual imagery inside the head of the reader. I say why not just skip that step altogether and craft said imagery directly instead.

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