Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cognitive Fluency - what goes on behind the scenes in our brains!

This article from the Boston Times, Easy = True, really blew my mind about how our brains work.

After reading it and thinking about all its ramifications, I radically changed my teaching (and better understood my own Japanese learning). I highly recommend you read this article. It has implications far beyond just teaching and learning.

*Update - A reader asked me to explain better how it relates to my teaching, especially in terms of Anki.

I think the key passage from the article is as follows (I put the key words in bold):

"The persuasive power of repetition, clarity, and simplicity is something that people who set out to win others’ trust - marketers, political candidates, speechwriters, suitors, and teachers - already have an intuitive sense of if they’re good at what they do. What the fluency research is showing is just how profound the effect can be, and just how it works."

The research seems to show that our brains like the information to be repeated, clear, and simple. In terms of teaching, I think if these three concepts are not present in what we do in the classroom, then our students' brains will not be happy, and therefore, they will not learn. Our students will not trust us and will not relax enough to learn effectively.

Repetition - Not only should we provide the repetition of content to the students, but our students should be able to repeat (do again and again) what we ask of them. If they can't, for whatever reason, their brains will be unhappy and they won't learn.

Clarity - Our students must understand what they are doing and why. From my own experience in Japanese language classes here in Tokyo, not understanding what the teacher is asking me to do is EXTREMELY frustrating and drives me crazy. It makes me want to quit...

Simplicity - This is not to say that the content (i.e. English) should be simple but that the activity itself should not be complicated or difficult. Again, the brain does not like things that are hard. Yes, we should challenge our students but not in a way that turns them off from learning.

So, how does this relate to Anki? Well, it seems to me that Anki could be a perfect manifestation of these three concepts. It is all about repetition. It is very clear about what a user must do and how it works. It is a very simple process, elegant even. And I think it is Anki's simplicity that is the most important. It takes the extremely difficult process of organizing, sorting, sequencing, and checking a huge amount of information and reduces it to a simple click of a button. An Anki user doesn't have to stress about all that; it takes all the worry out of the process. That freedom from stress and worry is amazing and powerful.

When I try to summarize this aspect of Anki to people, I say, "You only have to study what you NEED to study WHEN you need to study it." To me, that feels like a warm, soft blanket on a cold, rainy day...

However, how do we get our students to realize and understand all of this? That is the challenge...


  1. Rich, could you please explain it in plain English how it relates to teaching/learning?

    What I understood it that:

    • firstly: to make something easy is to lay it out nicely, or make it rhythm
    • secondly: to make people think, you have to make text/passage less legible

    But how to translate these ideas into Anki learning?

  2. Dear rrh,

    So I wrote more in the post above to try to answer your question. Anki is just one part of what I am trying to do in the classroom in terms of cognitive fluency: repetition, clarity, and simplicity.