On iPads, Learning, and Getting a Cup of Coffee in Germany

A year ago, as I was preparing for a trip to visit my sister and her family in Germany, I decided to teach myself a little German. I took a six-week intensive German course at Cornell University in the summer of 1986, but I since then I had forgotten most of what I’d learned. When I returned to German last winter, one of the best tools I found for increasing my German vocabulary was an online vocabulary-building program called Memrise.  Memrise is a flashcard program designed to introduce new vocabulary words and move them from short-term to long-term memory through a pattern of repetition and assessment. I found it both effective and fun. The dynamic, interactive online environment made the learning experience feel more like a game, exercising my concentration, speed, accuracy, and memory like a well-designed video game. For a few weeks before I traveled to Germany, I spent hours each day, challenging myself to learn more words and make fewer and fewer mistakes in less and less time.

An Intervention

Last Tuesday afternoon, I spent an hour at Bridgewater Elementary School observing the school’s two RtI (Response to Intervention) coaches working with students with specific skill deficits. One child needed work on basic multiplication, and the other needed work on oral reading fluency.

The first student was drilled on basic multiplication problems using a flashcard app for iPad. The “cards” were arranged so that the student was presented with a combination of problems that were known (i.e., she had answered them correctly in previous sessions) and unknown (i.e., she either hadn’t answered them correctly, or had taken too long to answer them in previous sessions). At the end of the drill, which lasted three minutes, the number of incorrect answers—or answers that took too long—was entered on a graph. From the graph, I could see that the student was becoming faster and more accurate each time.  The actual intervention—the one-on-one time with the teacher—took three minutes, but the results were dramatic.

The flashcard app that was used in the intervention reminded me of my own experience with Memrise. It required both concentration and speed, introducing and reinforcing knowledge until it became automatic.  

Rewiring the Brain

In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr draws on brain science, and the concept of neuroplasticity (the idea that our brains are actually rewired as a result of our experience), to argue that exposure to the Internet is radically altering the way our brains work. He argues that “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (Carr 116).

This rapid rewiring of the brain can have negative consequences. Carr, for example, focuses on the negative effects of the Internet on our ability to engage in “deep reading.” But it seems that this delivery of “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” stimuli to the brain—through flashcard apps like Memrise or the math flashcard app used at Bridgewater Elementary—can have positive implications for helping students acquire “automaticity.” The brain does need to be rewired in the process of acquiring automaticity. Brain scans of students being drilled on basic multiplication facts have shown that students with automatic recall of basic facts are using less of their brain to supply those facts. The acquisition of automaticity frees up space in the prefrontal cortex and creates a greater capacity for higher level computations.

Ich hätte gern einen Kaffee

With Memrise, I was learning dozens of new German words every week, but of course that didn’t mean I was becoming fluent in German. I was acquiring new vocabulary at a much faster rate than I was learning grammar, and I still hadn’t gained the confidence to open my mouth and attempt to communicate with native German speakers. At the end of three weeks in Germany, and with plenty of mental rehearsal, I was finally able to ask for a cup of coffee in German.

But my eight- and eleven-year old nieces, who had been immersed in German for six months, were fluent. A flashcard app is a useful tool for drilling and memorization of basic facts, such as vocabulary or multiplication, but students also need to develop higher level skills that come through “deep reading,” reflection, immersion, and engagement in real-world situations. iPads and apps can be useful educational tools, but they’re no substitute for immersing oneself in a book or a difficult math problem or a cultural experience. I expect that, if students in the Northfield Public Schools are given iPads, the technology will supplement, but not replace, that kind of engagement.

Cron & Lanz

There’s no iPad app for the experience of eating Baumkuchen and drinking coffee in Cron & Lanz, Göttingen’s famous Konditorei.


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