Sunday, May 29, 2011

Einstein may not have used flashcards--but they're a really good idea all the same

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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Here is an easy way into making flash cards more fun for math facts. Use dice instead. We have 12-sided dice that we use for multiplication. If multiplying by 3, for example, roll the die and multiply what you see by 3. You can use 2 dice for sums and differences (you can get 20-sided dice too). You don't have the effect of starting with a small pile, however. My 8-year old likes this better than flash cards. Playing cards also work well -- he deals two cards at a time to practice sums and differences. Face cards can be wild (especially 8, 9, or 12, which seems to need more work for multiplication). said...

I can think of another thing that flash-cards have going for them: they make it easy for the learner to assess themselves.

There's the assessment of "which ones do I already know," which most people quickly find out they have overestimated when they turn that flashcard over. There's also the assessment of "how many new ones can I learn in a day" when you shuffle new cards into the pack and realize it's going to take all week.

I've been enjoying your blog -- even when I don't fully agree, it's always thought-provoking.

Anonymous said...

We are using ANKI and I really like for the kids.

Anonymous said...

Books like Einstein Never Used Flashcards are based on a false dichotomy. Either your kids play or they learn. But there is more than enough time in the day for both. And, as you say, it is easy to combine play and learning.

There are flashcards you can get that use games to teach. You can get Go Fish games that are designed to teach the alphabet and phonics. This article has a list of some of these flashcards:

Anonymous said...

I'd agree with play more AND memorize more, taking the time away from computers/screens (and at school from fuzzy group work).

There are so many excellent games for older kids (younger kids can just play -- have them write stories about it afterwards) that use math and problem-solving skills. Not the kind of skills on a silly math poster, but the kind of skills like noticing over an accumulation of games what works and what doesn't, noticing patterns, creating strategies and adjusting them.

For younger kids, play Memory/Concentration with math facts -- it's a match if the two cards add to 10 -.
Blokus, Sequence, Qwirkle, The Great Dalmuti, card games, Scrabble,...