What cognitive disfluency teaches us?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

We are drowning in information these days. There’s so much information that our eyes glaze over.

The boards of education of every school district in America are touting the importance of having information about student attendance, test scores, reading ability, curriculum, assignments, and so on. And everywhere, we see charts, graphs, and tables. How can we keep up?

It’s so easy to put all this information into a pretty chart, but do we really understand it?

The Educational Benefits of Ugly Fonts

A few years ago, I read an interesting article in Wired called The Educational Benefits of Ugly Fonts. They discussed a research study where student volunteers were told to read some information. In one group, the information was easily scanned and read with a clear and legible typeface. In the other group, the same information was presented in an ugly, hard to read font. The students had to really work at making out what was being said.

The results?

The students faced with the ugly fonts actually remembered and retained the information better than those with the easy-to-read fonts. This is called cognitive disfluency.

“People process new information along a continuum, from very fluently (with great ease) to very disfluently (with great difficulty). Researchers have long recognized that people prefer fluently processed stimuli across a broad range of dimensions. A more recent stream of research suggests that disfluency sometimes produces superior outcomes.” – Adam Alter, a professor at NYU. See an interview here.

I was once given an assignment to copy the music for a Beethoven string quartet by hand. This was for a composition class at Juilliard School of Music. By the time I had written a few measures, I began to really get into the structure of the piece. It also helped me to retain some of the phrasing ideas that Beethoven was using.

I’ve done this kind of exercise before with creative fiction writing. I copied by hand the opening chapters of some of my favorite novels and short stories. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a favorite. After a few pages, my mind started to flow with the longer, mellifluous and magical phrasing he is known for.

In advertising classes, copywriters are given sample sales letters and told to write them out by hand for at least 30 minutes a day. After a few weeks, they are ready to start writing their own sales copy.

These are all examples of cognitive disfluency in action.

Smarter, Faster, Better

In Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better, he describes how a Cincinnati public school turned itself around using cognitive disfluency.

“In 2008, the Elementary Initiative was launched. As part of that reform, Johnson’s principal mandated that all teachers had to spend at least two afternoons per month in the school’s new data room. Around a conference table, teachers were forced to participate in exercises that made data collection and statistical tabulation even more time consuming.”

Teachers were required to make handwritten index cards with each student’s data and then transfer the information to long rolls of butcher paper lining the walls of the data room.

“It was intensely boring. And frankly, it seemed redundant because all this information was already available on the students’ online dashboards… ‘The rule was that everyone had to actually handle the cards, physically move them around.’… “Handling the cards, she found, gave her a more granular sense of each student’s strengths and weaknesses..”

This made me think of my process for music lesson planning and notes.

I have been writing lesson notes by hand after each lesson for the last six years or so. I then transfer them into my Music Teacher’s Helper to send to the parent and keep a running record for myself.

What I’ve noticed is that I am incredibly cognizant of where each and every student is on their path and what the right next step for them is. I’ve been training a few teachers in this method, and they too are getting wonderful results. The fact that I’m handling the data gives me that deeper understanding.

So the counter-intuitive act of making it harder to input data to a system (and my brain!) has enabled me to retain it in a more readily available form.

When To Use Cognitive Disfluency

Cognitive disfluency is an advanced technique.  It is best used for understanding big conceptual or structural knowledge like in the understanding of how Beethoven composed a string quartet or Picasso created a cubist portrait.

For basic concepts, you want to be very intuitive and easy to understand.

Once your brain understands the basic building blocks of any activity –  it chunks the information together.  This is how you can drive a car and listen to the radio without getting into an accident.  The small blocks have been made into habit routines that are chunked together.

However, this is exactly when many people miss information.  They back the car over the tricycle because they are not as carefully monitoring the environment the way they did in the first month of driving.  The same is true when viewing the fancy charts of data or understanding a finished piece of music.  You can easily gloss over the real details without internalizing any of them.  And…forget about retaining the information as it was never stored in the first place.

What do you use for your lesson planning?

You may want to try the harder, less convenient way for greater results.

Feel free to forward this to your friends, music teachers, clients.

A version of this article first appeared at the Music Teachers Helper Blog.

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Author: Andrew Ingkavet

Andrew Ingkavet is the creator of the Musicolor Method™, a proven system to teach preschoolers music. He offers a music teacher training course and coaching. He is owner/teacher of Park Slope Music Lessons and was one of the first 3 VJ’s for MTV-Asia in the 90’s.

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