Becoming a Power Learner

In 1957, a young man in Dr. Taylor’s class on the History of the French Revolution received these comments on a book review of August Fournier’s Napoleon the First from his professor:

“Some good features of this work stand out. The originality and reflectiveness of the commentary merits praise and there are good phrases of which I should like to have been the author.

But the whole thing is cast in such a confusion of language to render it impenetrable. The major faults are: (1) indefinite reference; (2) poor selection of prepositions, and indeed, of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs as well; (3) the use of complex, twisted, labyrinthine, aimless, and disorganized sentence structure (not to mention unfathomable punctuation and incompetent spelling).

To cure all this, I propose a course in Intermediate Composition (English 53). What you need to do is to return for a time to the short, declarative sentence and revise whatever you write two or three times, questioning the value and meaning of every word you set down. Then you can go onto something more sophisticated in the way of style. It is a pity that a man of your talent and capacity should be handicapped in putting his fine opinions on paper in so wretched a form.”

A second paper received this comment: “Again a fine effort marred by incapacity for written expression!”

I was that student. I followed Dr. Taylor’s admonition. I took English 53. I worked hard and learned the rules of written English language. I learned how to write, and on April 12, 2016 I will publish a book on my life’s work: Navigating the Nonprofit Rapids: Strategies and Tactics for Running a Nonprofit Company.

In 1960 I was finishing up my master’s degree in education; I had to take one more course in residence at NYU. So, before moving from Texas to Union Theological Seminary in Richmond where I would start taking a prerequisite course in “baby Greek,” I flew to New York City and took a course in Philosophy of Education.

The text for the course identified three theories of education. The first is that the mind is a muscle and education was about developing that muscle through memorization of facts and data. The second was that the mind was an empty vessel and that the task of education was to fill that empty vessel with the great ideas of civilization from the great thinkers, writers, and statesmen of history. The third was that the mind was a problem solving machine and the way you built the mind was through solving real life problems.

Since that time, it has been interesting to see how the educational theory of the moment reflects one of those view points above the others. I tend to be a John Dewey proponent, believing that the best way to learn is through experiential learning, meaning learning by doing and problem solving. Unfortunately, one of the downsides of child labor laws is that young people cannot get a job until they are in the mid-teens and then in only a very few occupations. As a result, young people do not have the opportunity to build a house, fix a car, or handle large machinery. Children now rarely get the benefits of what young people who grew up on the farms and in the small towns of America once experienced in their early years.

According to the book, The Idea Factory, the master’s in engineering curriculum at MIT is totally based on solving engineering problems, one after another until the student shows enough competence to merit a graduate degree. There are no lectures in which students simply regurgitate information. Instead, they solve problems and gain proficiency though the process. In some private schools, like the Community School in Roanoke, that style of education is the foundation of their program. Children who graduate from the school receive no publically recognized high school degree, yet have no problem in getting into the best colleges and universities in the country.

Still, there is much something to be said for the theory that the mind is a muscle and the way we learn is through exercising that muscle by memorizing basic building blocks that we then use to solve problems. There is also something to be said for the populace to be acquainted with the great minds of the human race, have a basic knowledge of the history of the world, and an appreciation for the pitfalls of the human experiment.

The bottom line is that education requires memorization of facts, figures, and data, including the rules for written expression. To succeed in school and continue moving forward requires that a person learn how to absorb that information and demonstrate a working knowledge of it.

During a two-week camping trip at Huntington state Park just south of Myrtle Beach in the summer of 1995, I wondered what I knew that might be marketable. What was it that I personally was really good at that might be worth something to someone else? I knew immediately what it was. I am really good at succeeding in school. This is not a talent that I was born with. It was something I had to learn. Just as important, I knew the steps that any student with a poor academic record had to take to become a top student. I had travelled that road.

The very first step is that you have to dare to be smart. You have to set a goal to do well in school and to do whatever it takes to get there. This is a risky adventure because there is always the chance that you may fail to reach your goal. There is the danger you might do poorly and confirm in your mind and the minds of others that, in fact, you are not very smart.

The next step is that you have to understand a little more about how your brain, the learning machine, works. The brain has two memory platforms, short- and long-term. It is very easy to get discouraged when material that you enter into your short-term memory doesn’t last very long. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that there is something wrong with your brain. The way the brain works is that the only way short-term memory material gets transferred to the long-term memory is through periodic review. So, if you want to lodge material in long-term memory after you attend a class, take your class notes and rewrite them that very night, filling in material that you did not have an opportunity jot down during class. Then, review those notes periodically at least every two weeks.

It is also important to understand how we intake knowledge. The brain intakes knowledge through our many senses: the eyes, ears, taste, smell, and the movement of the body. The more senses that are involved in learning any material, the more likely it is to find lodging in our brains.

When I was a middle school teacher in Orange, Texas, I had to teach a unit on poetry. Poetry was not something that had held my interest. Nevertheless, I was committed to doing a good job. So, I went to the library, read, took notes, developed an outline for teaching, and taught a unit on poetry to my students. At the end of the class, I asked myself: “Who had learned most about poetry?” I had. In the act of teaching, my eyes read, my hands took notes, and my voice vocalized what I had learned. When I had decided to earn a fellowship at the end of graduate school, I put that lesson to good use. I read the material, took notes, and then got up in front of an empty classroom and lectured through the whole course before final exams. I did this in preparation for every final exam for three years. I graduated cum laude, first in my class, and earned a post-graduate fellowship to Yale.

The person I learned the most from about learning how to learn was my late good friend, Fitzhugh Spragins. In preparing for his final review, he would boil down an entire course onto one legal sized piece of paper. He would write in tiny, legible print using the smallest number of words possible to recall what was important. He would use acronyms, rhymes, visual images to engage his recollection. We would go over and over this page until he could envision the entire page in his mind. Fitzhugh would also win a post-graduate scholarship, earn a Ph.D., and land a teaching position at Arkansas College where he taught until his retirement.

In 1996 I developed a course on how to learn called “Power Learning: Better Grades for a Brighter Future.” I recorded 16 lessons on four tape cassettes and packaged them with a manual summarizing the content.

The courses covered daring to be smart, putting your thinking brain in control by setting goals, getting organized, managing time and managing feelings, moods, and energy. It shared important tips on taking notes and organizing an optimum study session. Listeners to the tapes would learn about four top Power Learning Tools: recitation, association, visualization, and developing curiosity and asking good questions. There is also a chapter on overcoming the resistance of friends, parents, and teachers by using behavior modifying techniques on them in order to gain their support. The program ends with three important lessons on Smart Reading: Increasing Speed and Comprehension, Smart Writing: Improving Written Work, and Smart Testing: Becoming an Exam Killer. Power Learning concludes with a session on “Believing in Yourself.” A self-assessment at the very end is a good summary of what it takes to be a “Power Learner.”

After completing the course I met with a marketing guru. The idea was to feature the tapes and manual in a large number of newspapers with Sunday inserts for purchasing a wide range of items. If the book had enough sales through the first marketing initiative, the next step was to increase the marketing through even more newspapers. If the number of sales hit the target, then the direct marketing company would seek intensive marketing of the Power Learning Program through a very wide number of papers in large market areas.

Power Learning made the first cut and narrowly failed on the second test. I still consider the work I did in creating the Power Learning program to be some of the best of my career. Unfortunately, at the time, I knew too little about the world of marketing. Maybe it is not too late!

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