Weird Beats Normal
Weird is good
Once, in the Dark Ages of my teaching a student said to me: You’re weird.
I was offended. The young professional me tried so hard to be the normal teacher every kid would like and learn from. Instead, I was weird.
I didn’t realize it then but now I know it was a compliment. Regardless of the motivations behind his statement - the student might have liked me and wanted to give me props or, more likely, thought my ways were strange - being called weird is often a good thing.
To be fair, on any day other than Halloween being creepy-weird or spooky-weird is mostly bad. But unusual, unorthodox, unconventional, outlandish, mysterious, surreal, supernatural, and sometimes seemingly-crazy have a lot of appeal with kids and adults.
Sure, we call things and people weird to communicate our disapproval of them. But consider Picasso’s art - cubism, surrealism, and fluid clocks. Weird but great. Benjamin Franklin took air baths - he’d spend his mornings butt-naked reading or writing. Not your typical morning routine but that dude’s face figures on a $100 bill all the while all others assumed they have to put in time at the Oval Office to get in your wallet. And just look at that lion’s mane Albert Einstein called his hair. His contemporaries were probably weary of small animals jumping out of there and yet, just inches underneath lied a brilliant tool that greatly contributed to our understanding of the universe.
Weird is where it’s at.
Weird is more memorable
I recently showed my chemistry students how to use a memory palace (method of loci) to remember 14 concepts for the vocabulary quiz. I told them that they will remember the concepts better if they strive to understand not just memorize them. If you’re a teacher I’m sure you’ve given that same speech ad nauseam too.
Two weeks later, the mean score was 70 percent.
On one hand, 70 percent is the average the educational system is built for. It is often used as the acceptability benchmark. It’s “good enough.” The 70% kid will be able to follow his boss’ directions and perform the job. He won’t be a societal parasite. He won’t stand out either but he’ll be a productive citizen. He’ll be normal. Check.
On the other hand, do I really want to look away and accept mediocrity as the norm?
I can’t. I won’t. It’s because too frequently normal participates but doesn’t create. A whole lot of normal and only a tiny bit of weird got us to today. It is the weird, not the normal that drives progress. So lets subtract normal, add weird, and innovate.
But it won’t be easy. Conditioned habits are hard to replace. Myths we buy into and keep retelling die hard. Many of my students did badly on the vocab quiz I mentioned before because they were “normal.” They studied the usual way. They did what they always do and they got what they always get. They averaged 70 percent.
This might be related to how we teach them - the methods we teach and don’t teach in class. A normal high school junior has undergone some 10 years of conditioning to do things a certain way in school; the regular way. Some are still stuck on studying the normal way - rereading textbooks and notes. Others use flashcards, which albeit less so, is still a primitive recall method that utilizes only written language. Only a few students visualize what they’re learning because somehow their imaginations pointed out the better path to learning - the not so normal way.
Most teachers don’t explicitly teach students to visualize the concepts they’re learning. After all, this is not the way we were taught ourselves. I myself only started preaching to my students to always turn written definitions into mental pictures about 3 years ago. This is especially important when we are dealing with abstract concepts such as the ones that appear in science curricula.
However, converting concepts into visuals can and should be done with all information a student (or anyone else) needs to understand and remember.
There are two reasons for this. One, letters and numbers are abstractions. Two, the human mind has evolved to process in images.
Our Minds Prefer Images
How did you learn that a tree is a tree? I’m no psychic but I bet it looked something like the following. You were about 2 and walking about your habitat with mom or dad or both and you saw this big thick brown stick with a whole lot of green on it. You pointed at it. That’s a tree honey! said mom. Twee! you repeated enthusiastically.
The next several times you saw a tree you’d point at it and say twee! Your little brain encoded the image and the name your language associated with it. And if you speak a different-than-English first language than your mind encoded the sound as something else. For example, prior to coming to the US it was “drzewo” to me - the Polish word for tree. But the image was the same as yours and barring a traumatic brain injury neither of us is ever forgetting what a tree is or what one might look like. We can imagine and describe one in crazy vivid detail on a dime and think nothing of it.
And crazy vivid is where it’s at when it comes to learning. But, it’s often perceived as weird.
Turn the Abstract Into the Understandable
Perhaps I should have but I did not make it mandatory for my students to create a memory palace for the vocabulary they were going to be quizzed on. I did not want to collect my students’ “palaces” and grade them. After all, the idea was for the kids to store them in their minds and use them to rehearse the quiz concepts.
As I walked around the room that day, I noticed that maybe one half of the students took my advice and worked on creating memory palaces on paper or the classroom dry erase tables. Others defaulted to lists or flashcards.
Oh well. I imagine unlearning flashcards or definition lists and replacing them with mental movies is similar to trying to walk backwards after doing it the normal way for 15 years. The difference is that walking forward is already more efficient than crabbing your way through the world while the old school flashcards and rereading are not the most efficient way to learn vocabulary. Visual methods are. Memory palaces are. But the student minds perceive these unfamiliar methods as weird. And they are right - they are weird. But weird is the way.
Even the students who followed my advice and created memory palaces defaulted to studying the old school way. Most did not go back to their mental palaces to rehearse the information. When I asked most admitted to not using their palace.
Perhaps they were unclear on how to use it or uncomfortable with it or unconvinced that it will help. Perhaps some used it but their visualizations weren’t weird enough.
Nelson Dellis, a six-foot-six 4-time US Memory Champion suggests adding the three ingredients - Sensory Overload, Grotesque Absurdity, and Moveable Attributes - to the visuals one imagines to make them more memorable.
Sure enough, all three ingredients are full of weird. Imagine what a pizza looks like. Then overload the senses by trying to imagine what it smells, tastes, feels, and sounds like. Make it grotesque by imagining the red sauce is actually scalding-hot blood that’s dripping from a dismembered cartoon rat that’s been tied to the pizza and tortured. And by the way, the rat is still moving - the poor thing is screaming and squirming while the red sauce is bubbling and sizzling all around like lava adding to its misery.
Now, try to get that image out of your head. If you imagined it in the first place, you can’t. You remember every gory detail. Maybe you felt sickened and compelled to make a PETA donation or maybe you thought WTF is wrong with you Cymerman! But the truth is - the human mind remembers weird stuff best - crazy, grotesque, emotionally-scarring, gross, graphic, absurd - take your pick, or better yet pick all of the above and teach your students to remember better.
So next time someone tells me I’m weird I’ll be ready. It’ll go like this:
Someone: Dude, you’re weird.
Me: How I roll homes. You better recognize!
Don’t fear the weird. Be weird. Teach weird. It beats normal and is unforgettable.
And check out Nelson Dellis’ book Remember It! for more gory, grotesque, and weird descriptions of many memory and learning techniques you and your kids can benefit from.
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Hi! I'm Oskar. I teach, write, and speak to make learning better.
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