Monday, December 10, 2012

Keeping Up with Quinn

As I prepare dinner, Iris paces back-and-forth past the kitchen island on which my I'm chopping peppers and onions. Her hands move in fits of frenzy, pausing to wait for her words to catch up, and then frenzying again.  "The problem is... the problem... the problem is that we're just not keeping up with Quinn."

"What do mean?"

"Quinn still has his challenges, but he's overcoming them faster and faster."

"Uh, huh."

"People see that he's growing, but they don't see how he's getting faster at learning to learn."

"He's accelerating."

"Yeah, he's... what?"

"They see his rate of speed, but they don't see that the rate is changing. Most people see just a snapshot of Quinn, like a picture of a car in motion. You can't see that he's moving.

Some people see how he's growing day to day and they have an idea of how fast he's going, like a car that you pass on the highway, but they don't see that he's getting faster.

Everyone thinks about Quinn like the car in the photo that seems not to be moving or the car on the highway that was moving slowly; they don't see Quinn as someone who's going to pass them."

"Yeah, and he's going to pass them soon, really soon. Some, he might already have passed."

"So why are you suddenly concerned about this?"

"It's not suddenly. I've been seeing it happen, but I haven't been able to put my finger on it. First, you've got the fact that once Quinn get's the idea of something new, he's relentless in trying it over and over until he gets it."

"Sure, but that's not something new. What's changed, recently?"

"Hmm... OK, here's something. Over the past weeks, we've been teaching Quinn sign-language. Being Quinn, he wants to sign everything he's says or hears. He's been picking it up really quickly."

"Oh, well that's it then."

"That's it then? I didn't even finish what I was going to say."

"Sorry, please finish."

"Since he's been signing, his spoken language has been improving and so has his spelling."

"Uh, huh."

"As his speaking and spelling improve, so does his signing."

"Uh, huh."

"Uh, huh what?"

"Anchor points."

"Anchor points?"

"Yeah, anchor points. Quinn's learning faster than other people, because he has multiple anchor points for everything he learns."

"You mean like when you learn a knew word and you visualize how it must be spelled."

"Yeah, like that. You set an aural anchor point when you hear and repeat the word. Visualizing how it's spelled sets a visual anchor point.  More importantly, when you sound out the spelling, you set a hybrid aural/visual anchor point that embeds much more deeply than the other two."

"And now Quinn has the signing. He watches his fingers and our fingers, so that gives him another visual anchor point. Plus, he feels the words and letters in his hands, so that's a tactile anchor point."

"With all those anchor points, it's no wonder he's learning so fast. If he keeps it up and if no one else is keeping up with his signing, he'll be passing everyone in no time. That's what happened for me in math."

"For you in math? I knew that this would eventually become about you. What about math?"

"In school, I was never good at math. I must have taken freshmen algebra four years in a row. When I got the job at Bell Labs, I had to go to night school in order to get ahead. That meant taking math classes. Moreover, it meant taking calculus classes. I had no idea what I would do."

"Yeah, but you're really good at math now."

"Now, but not then. Fortunately for me they cancelled the evening session because there weren't enough students enrolled. I couldn't make the daytime session because I had to work. So, I asked the professor if I could just come in and take the tests."

"But you said you were no good at math. How exactly did you expect that to work?"

"Um... good question. When the professor agreed to give it a try, I had this internal sense of panic as I smiled and thanked him. I had no idea how to go about it."

"What'd you do?"

"First thing was to buy five different calculus books. Whenever I read just one, I'd come up with so many ways to interpret the text that I'd get completely confused. However, if I read four or five versions of the same thing, I could lock down the meaning. It was painfully slow, but for the first time ever I felt as though I'd understood what'd I'd read."

"So reading the various versions was kind of like setting anchor points?"

"Yeah, but thing that really nailed it for me was to visualize the formulas. Previously, I'd always tried to memorize them, but they were just phrases and symbols. When I started visualizing the geometric images that the formulas mapped to, it was easier to learn them. It was like sounding out words and spelling them."

"OK, so that gave you a visual anchor point plus a hybrid one, right?"

"Yup. And the last thing I did was to practice. At Berklee, I'd learned what it meant to practice relentlessly. It was a skill I'd not developed in grammar school or high school. So, I treated calculus like I would a really gnarly piece of music. I broke it down and practiced each piece repeatedly."

"And it all worked?"

"Yeah. I was hoping just to make it through and instead I got the highest score on the final exam."

"Well, I've got to start setting some anchor points and practicing relentlessly. Otherwise, Quinn's going to blow right by me and I'll be running like crazy to catch up. He's already better than I am at sign language."

"Better not teach him to play drums, otherwise you'll never catch up."

"Very funny.... hah... hah..."

Happy Monday,

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