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I haven't written much about learning or problem solving lately, but have been still been thinking about it. Just recently I had an exchange with liralen in response to a comment she made in her journal about how her son has problems spelling when he's writing, like she does. I've always been curious about why she has these problems (given that she excelled at Caltech), so this was as good a time as any to ask. In case you don't want to read the long thread, a capsule summary is that she did not consider spelling to be a visual memorization problem, and was told she should sound words out to spell them.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with someone in my chorus a few years ago while we were in France. We were talking about learning French, and I mentioned that I was finding learning how to use the past tense a bit difficult. Her response was to use the "trick" of replacing the ending of a verb with an é, and preceding it with a present tense conjugation of avoir (to have). (For example, "he spoke" translates to "il a parlé", because one removes the -er suffix from parler (to speak), and uses the third person singular present tense of avoir.)

I didn't say anything, but thought about it for a while, because from the amount of French I'd seen and heard at the time, this rule cannot be applied universally for a variety of reasons, although it holds for quite a few verbs. So I decided almost never to use the past tense until I'd had more time to learn its various forms. In fact it wasn't until last summer that I really started feeling comfortable enough to use it in conversation (on a limited basis).

The underlying premise of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is that if students are taught things "the right way" by qualified teachers, they will be as qualified (in math and science) as most students from countries such as India and China that produce more science and engineering graduates than the US does, beat the US in math competitions, etc. Whether the program is actually working is a subject of considerable debate, but I at least agree that it's a worthy goal to rectify the types of problems that cause people to make mistakes due to faulty or incomplete instruction at a young age.


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