Flashcards have gotten a bad rap by people who criticize pushy parents and drill & kill teaching. Epitomizing this, eponymously, is the still-popular 2005 book Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn--and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Of course, there are numerous ways to be a genius and many of these don't entail knowing a huge number of facts outside your given area of expertise--much as our culture likes to equate being a genius with knowing everything (c.f., for example, the eponymous character in Good Will Hunting, the one played by Matt Damon).
Aside from the photographic memory-endowed Will Huntings of the world, and the eclectic bookworms, and the tutored, tiger-mothered children, most kids, according to basic standards such as those measured by the NAEP, don't know nearly enough facts--whether about government, history, geography, or science. These kids need to play less and memorize more. And flashcards are actually a great--and playful--way to accomplish this.
Consider how they work when used well. You start with a manageable number of cards (terms on one side; definitions or other short explanations on the other; either the term side or the definition side can serve as the prompt for the other side). You eliminate only those prompts you can answer correctly right away. You keep cycling rapidly through your pile, reshuffling thoroughly before each iteration, and occasionally adding new cards as the pile gets smaller. When you've had enough, you stop. You start your next flashcard session with the words it took you longest to learn last time, along with some new ones. Gradually, through repeated exposure and rapid retrieval practice, you learn.
In terms of effective learning techniques, you've got at least three going for you: as you add and subtract from your pile, you approach your Zone of Proximal Development; as you attempt to recall what's on the other side, you reap the benefits of retrieval practice; as you turn over each card, you get immediate feedback.
My daughter has used flashcards for Chinese characters, and has enjoyed cycling through her pile and feeling it get smaller and smaller as she gradually learns to recognize new configurations of dots, dashes, and hooks. She's also enjoyed the process of fast recall, perhaps sensing that it helps her solidify her recognition of each new configuration. We've since moved on to French, and I'll soon be looking for French vocabulary and verb conjugation cards.
Low tech and unglamorous though they are, flash cards are a big hit chez nous. I suspect that many other kids would enjoy using them--if only they had the opportunity.