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"Accessing the Alphabet - Sequentially and Randomly"

On Education and Learning



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Do you own a computer? Then in all likelihood, you have read, or heard, the word, "RAM"; random access memory. Do you realize, though, that the technology this acronym refers to is relatively new? What I mean is, for a long time, computers retrieved data sequentially, not randomly. Why mention this? Because random access and sequential access are the two ways we access the information in our minds as well. This week, then, in our ongoing series on education and learning, we're going to take a look at how these two ways of memorizing things affect how we learn, beginning with a look at how well you know the English alphabet. Do you think you know it well? Let's find out.

Learning the Alphabet - Momentum Learning versus Emergent Learning - The Anchor Poles of Learning

Chapter Sixteen

"Suddenly noticing things ..."

Recently, a very conscious woman, someone I've been seeing for years, on entering my office, asked me, "Is that chair new?" The woman was very conscious at the time, and the chair had been there, unmoved, for more than a year.

At first, I saw nothing significant about her remark. After all, I've heard people say things like this for years. For some reason though, her comment stuck in my mind. Something about a conscious person saying they had been this unconscious set off a series of questions in me. For one thing, it made me ask myself, "how much of what we think we know do we really know?"

My conclusion? It seems we know a whole lot less than what we think we know. Moreover, it seems we do not notice this because our minds function a lot like our word processors and automated computer forms. In other words, it appears our minds visually "auto fill" a lot of "what we think we know" with "what we expect to see."

As I thought about this further then, I realized this, in part, is exactly what William James, the father of American psychology, said more than a hundred years ago. In essence, he said that the reality in our minds changes based on what we currently need to believe. Quite a far cry from how current theorists claim our minds work.

Can this be true then? Can a significant portion of what we believe we have learned be what our minds visually "auto fill" onto the screens of our minds? In effect, is the learning we access mainly just what we expect to see? Literally?

If so, then what does this imply about the validity of how we test people for learning? For instance, is how we currently test kids in school as flawed as this auto fill idea would imply? In other words, are we testing more for the sequence in which information is learned than for the information itself?

More important still, if this is true, then is there a real, pragmatic way to test kids for learning? Or is testing for learning valid only during the temporary period of time wherein the learned sequence is present?

These are the questions we'll begin to explore this week, as we take a another look at how momentum affects the what, when, how, and how much of what we actually learn.

What Letter Comes Before ...

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned I had been studying Greek. And for those who have not read these articles, know I chose to study Greek so as to re-experience what it was like to not know a single letter of an alphabet. Nor how to pronounce any of these letters.

So what have I learned so far? To my amazement, more than a year later, I still have trouble with about a third of the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. This with an IQ of 165 no less.

Sound absurd? Before you answer, allow me to show you how I've been testing myself for having learned these letters. I've been testing myself by writing these letters in both forwards and backwards sequences. I've also been varying the letters with which I begin these sequences, each time, using different letters.

Would you to see for yourself what this experience has been like for me? It's easy. Try this. Without mentally reciting any of the letters of the English alphabet, tell me the letter before "W."

Can you do it?

To my surprise, most people can't. In fact, some of the smartest folks I know found themselves feeling strong urges to recite, in their heads, the forwards sequence with which they first learned these letters, this despite my instruction not to do this.

What do these urges imply? They imply that much of what believe we learn, we do not truly learn. At least, not in a way we can randomly access.

What do we learn then? We learn sequences of things. Which is why most people who try this little test end up feeling strong urges to recite the sequence with which they originally learned the alphabet, in an attempt to find the letter in this sequence which comes before the "W"; the letter "V."

Does doing this matter though? Yes. Absolutely. Why? Because if you break these sequences down, you lose your access to these letters. Which, in the case of the alphabet, means you lose access to most of what we create with these individual letters. Words.

What I'm saying is, it seems what we actually learn then, is a few forwards biased sequences in which we recite these 26 letters. Which means we learn to access the individual letters sequentially, not randomly. How? By either visually or aurally referring to a forwards biased sequence in which we recite a few of these letters.

Okay. So you are probably asking yourself, why make such a big deal out of this? We can, after all, read English.

What's the big deal? That most of the words we read do not follow these forwards biased, memorized sequences. In fact, most words utilize letters much more randomly.

In fact, many words use letters in patterns very similar to how I've been studying the Greek alphabet. They use letters in both forwards and backwards sequences which often begin with, and contain, letters in the reverse order from how we learned them. Moreover, this often happens even in the simplest of words, such as in words like "pot" and "top," and "zip" and "pear," and "dog" and "God," and "tub" and "but?"

So what do we actually learn when we learn to read? Herein lies a profoundly important thing to know about learning. What we think we learn, we learn very little of. And what we do learn is more the information in context than the information itself.

For instance, while most English speaking people would feel certain they have learned to read the English alphabet, most people have not. What they have actually learned then is a contextually sensitive sequence of sounds and signs which more resemble half consciously spoken prayers than consciously recognized communications.

And yes, while learning these sequences, indeed, does qualify as learning, because most of our words do not derive their letter patterns straight from these sequences, we experience a big gap between what we believe we have learned and what we have actually learned.

What I'm saying is, despite what we think to the contrary, we actually have very little random access to the letters which make up our alphabet. Less so with the letters in our words. And lest you doubt that what I've been saying is true, try testing yourself again.

Quick.

What is the letter that comes before "U?"

Now be honest. Did you just involuntarily say the letter "V" to yourself? And how quickly did the letter "T" come to mind. Or did your mind go blank just from trying to force the letter "T" into mind?

If any of this happened, know you are right here in the midst of all the rest of us lemmings; certain we know how to read and write and yet, unable to randomly access the majority of even the alphabet.

So What Happens When We Read Then?

The question now becomes, so what does happen when we read? More important, to what degree does how we read affect our ability to read consciously?

The obvious answer. The battles our minds play with sequential versus random access affect us a lot, making us read very unconsciously. In fact, my guess is, when it comes to words, most of what we do is that we simply memorize clumps of symbols, and then mainly access them as recognizable but mostly unconscious patterns of letters and or sounds. In essence, we memorize what these clumps of symbols look like.

What's wrong with this though? To see for yourself, try taking this test. It's a test for your ability to consciously see words within words.

What I mean is, how many times do you notice how most words stem from some original first picture and in doing so, relate to many other words. Sometimes even to words wherein the spelling of this stem varies greatly.

For instance, when you hear the word, "mist," do you connect this word to the word, "mystical?" Or to the word, "mystery?" Or to the words, "mistake" or "misnomer" or "miscellaneous?" And if you do, do you picture "mist" as the visual stem with which these words consciously connect to each other?

How about your ability to "take apart" words, in other words, to see the "words within words?" For instance, some words, like "tri-cycle," are easy to take apart. Something has three parts. And something goes in a circle. But how about words like "e-merge-ence" or "trans-form-er" or "philo-sophi-cal."

Emergence. Do you picture "merging?" Do you picture "something coming out of a merging"; the "E" being the "coming out" part? Do you picture this "something coming out of a merging" happening, the "ence" part?

Transformer. How about the "trans-ing" part as the "travel-ing, mov-ing, chang-ing position" part? Do you picture any of these things? And how about the "trans-ing to form" something part? Do you picture this happening? How about the thing which causes stuff to "trans to form something?" Do you have a picture of this part of the word? 

And the word, "philosophy." "Philo" is an old Greek name. Verbally related to the beginning of "Philadelphia." The "city of brotherly love."

Do you picture old Philo? Or at least, something involving love?

Then there is the "sophia" part. "Sophia," like "Philo," is an old Greek name. This time the name of the goddess of wisdom, and a distant relative to the Eve gal and her snaky friend in the garden of Eden.

Finally, there is the "cal" part. Do you picture the words related to this visual stem, such as "calculate" or " calamity" or "calcify." "Cal" is a visual stem which roughly means "to make things happen." "Cal-cu-late" is to make things "a-cu-mulate." "Cal-lam-ity" is an event which makes things "lame." And "cal-ci-fy" is to make like "calcium," which is a mineral which gets created when lime accumulates.

So now, what does "philo-sophi-cal" mean? It refers to a whole slew of visual words stems, the gist of which are that philosophical things are things which "make" you "love wisdom."

Why all the words about visual word stems? Because being able to consciously read centers on that the reader has a strong curiosity regarding the visual meanings of the words and their origins. Including that the reader co creates the visual meanings of these words as they read. As this happens, the reader creates personal meanings for each of these words and in doing so, does exactly what William James believed we do with our minds. We recall what we need to recall at the time.

Of course, being able to do this consciously requires you can read and speak the letters of the alphabet, both visually and aurally, both randomly and sequentially. Why? Because the degree to which you have random access to the letters of the alphabet determines the degree to which you can consciously read and write your language. And because without this access, much of what you read, and speak, more resembles a parroted connect-the-dots game (a sequentially accessed learning) than a consciously chosen act of learning to love something (a randomly chosen access).

And in case you have not yet realized it, learning to sequentially access something is what we call, "parroting," while learning to randomly access something is what we refer to as "emergence."

Learning to Read More Consciously

So we rarely read consciously. Not so good, is it? No, it isn't.

The good news, though, is that we can easily change this, simply by having kids do some of the very things I've been working on in my efforts to learn to read and write Greek.

What do I do? I practice writing the alphabet, both forwards and backwards, each time, beginning the sequence with a different letter. Then, as I do, I note, very honestly, and very consciously, the points at which my mind either goes blank or grasps for the forward sequence. When this happens, I know I've just tried to sequentially access what I've learned, in effect, so I can parrot the correct answer.

The thing to notice here is how these sequences always begin with randomly accessible "anchor points," letters which you have actually learned to access randomly. All learning works this way. Which means if you randomize your learning sequences, you up the chances you'll have these anchor points emerge. Moreover, if you look for the visual loss patterns which occur in between these anchor points, you'll have "aha's" all over the place, and you'll genuinely learn the alphabet.

Want to up the quality of this whole process another notch? Try noticing how sound plays a part in your being able to write these letters. To see just how much, try doing the previous tests while not allowing yourself to voice the sounds of the letters in your head. In other words, try to read or write the alphabet by sensing only the visual aspects, and nothing more.

My guess? You'll find dozens of places wherein you can access a letter only as part of an auditory to visual forward sequence. If so, then you can quickly, and easily, raise the degree to which you read consciously simply by learning to write, and recite, the alphabet backwards.

Next, try writing these sequences with different beginning letters. Both backwards and forwards. And do this both with and without any auditory cues. I'm learning to do this very thing with the Greek alphabet right now. And you know what? My ability to remain conscious while looking at unfamiliar words has increased noticeably. Which in turn has noticeably increased my levels of curiosity as to what these unfamiliar words visually mean.

Imagine how these few simple things could affect the way children feel about words? And about learning to read?

Closing Comments

Those who follow Emergence know that I frequently mention an Emergence Practitioner who also happens to be an English teacher. For almost two years now, he has been openly teaching Emergence and conscious reading to the kids in his classroom. And while his work constitutes the compliment to the ideas I've been mentioning in this article (visualizing words not letters), it very much shows how what I've just asked you to imagine (what would it be like if we used Emergence to teach children to read) could affect children.

What to take a peek? Here is a sample of what it is like, straight from the mouths of his students:

"Mr. F~*g, I realize now when I talk to my friend, how much I'm really picturing what they are talking about. And, when I realize that I'm not really listening, and in that cloudy space, I bring myself back to them."

"Mr. F~*g, when the picture emerged for me...."
(I'm advised by this teacher that this is the regular language in the classroom. Kids talking about and using emergence. Wow!)

"Mr. F~*g, when I NOW talk to a friend, I try to picture what they are saying, so I can be there for them."

Okay. So you already know that learning to read is very important. But considering what these kids have said, has it ever occurred to you that teaching children to read consciously could affect their very ability to connect to others? As human beings?

Here, then, is exactly what is happening in one New York classroom. By learning to read consciously, these kids are learning to better connect to each. Not as parrots, but as human beings.

Isn't this truly awesome.

And it's just the barest peek at how using Emergence in classrooms could change children, and education in general.

Until next week then. I hope you're all well,

Steven

P. S. And for those wishing to see how open they are to this and any new learning, here's a link to the Teachability Index Worksheet.


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