Learn Something New Every Day!

Archive for April, 2013

Earth Day 2013

Today—Monday, 22 April 2013—is EARTH DAY.

PogoEarthDayPoster1970The first Earth Day was celebrated 43 years ago.  That year, 20 million people reportedly participated.    Today, Earth Day is celebrated in over 192 countries by nearly a billion people.  Although some progress has been made in protecting the earth, the Pogo poster from 1970—sadly—is still appropriate today.

I am more concerned than hopeful about the fate of our world. There is still so much to do.  But today, I will celebrate and trust that together the people of the world can actually make a difference.  As Carl Sagan reminds us, it is our responsibility to “preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.”

Do you have any special plans for today?

Learning Now!

Siobhan Curious from Classroom as Microcosm has offered a second writing prompt as part of her Writing on Learning Exchange:  What I Want to Learn Now.  My response is below, but check out other responses on her site—and consider adding your own.

LEARNING NOW!

I love learning!  To paraphrase Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy learning or get busy dying.” If you are not learning, you are not living life to the fullest and you are bound to die, perhaps a bit sooner than you’d expect.  But being open to learning is fairly easy—you just need to fully engage with the world around you.

I just finished reading John Grisham’s The Appeal and learned through one storyline how relatively easy it is for someone with lots of money and little conscience to manipulate elections and the general population.  I cannot say I am thrilled about having this lesson thrown in my face, but it does serve as a cautionary tale.  It also demonstrates that if you keep your mind open, you can learn something from just about any encounter, be it book, movie, tv show, new neighbor, store clerk, church sermon, whatever.

Recently, I have picked up a new recipe from a friend’s blog, discovered some book titles I want to read, and am gaining a better understanding of the concerns and problems surrounding engineered food.  I’m eager to see the new movie 42 to get a better sense of the details surrounding Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball—and I figure that seeing the movie will spark some reading and learning to verify details.

My most recent intentional learning project has focused on mastering the technology needed to teach effectively online for the American Public University System.  I have not been assigned a class yet as an adjunct but will be soon.  In preparation, I took a three-week class to learn the technology the campus uses to enable teachers to engage the students and the material.  Part of what I learned was the mechanics of the college’s Sakai system, so I can—among other things—post assignments, insert video clips into messages, respond to students individually or as a group, grade assignments and then post grades for the students.  I also learned about the services available for faculty and students through the online college library system.

By the end of the three-week course, I mastered the basics, so now know that I can use the technology effectively, and I gained confidence in my skills so now know that I can engage the students through the technology.  I also know that I have more to learn!  When I am finally teaching my first class with this system as an adjunct professor, I will be able to experiment with and perfect how the technology can help me help the students learn.  Taking this class also taught me (reminded me?) what it feels like to be a student in an online environment—the worry about using the technology; the concern that you’ll not get “it,” not get whatever the lesson is that day/week; and the hassles of staying engaged and motivated even when life interrupts the class.

The best part about learning is that it is an ongoing process.  It is not surprising that Aristole was right:  “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  Obviously then, there is always more to learn.  Learning keeps pushing you forward in life!  Of course, you do have to keep an open mind and look for learning opportunities.  As William Dewar said, “Your mind is like a parachute.  It only functions when it is open.”

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN LEARNING LATELY?

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SOME OF MY FAVORITE QUOTES ON LEARNING

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” Mahatma Gandhi

 “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”   Dr. Seuss

“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.”    Vernon Howard

“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”  Harry S Truman

“Life is like playing a violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.”   Samuel Butler

“The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men.”   John Dewey

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”   Henry Ford

“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”  Lloyd Alexander

“If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way.”    Mark Twain

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”   Confucius

 “Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.”  W. Edwards Deming

 “It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.”   Alec Bourne

 “He was so learned he could say horse in nine languages; so ignorant he bought a cow to ride on.”  Benjamin Franklin

Topic N: Time for a NAP

Okay.  Let’s act like this is a round of Jeopardy.

Here’s the answer:

*  You’ve had a good day.

*  You’ve had a bad day.

*  You’re home early.

*  It is cold and dreary out.

*  It is sunny out—and you have a hammock.

*  You just ate.

*  You won’t eat for a couple hours.

*  You just finished a big task.

*  You have a big task on your to-do list.

*  Just because.

*  Why not?

THE QUESTION:  What are perfectly good reasons for taking a nap?

Like you need a reason for a nap!

Grandpa  BabysittingAs adults, we recognize that babies nap almost all the time.  And we insist on naps for the kids as they grow up.  Daycares and kindergartens typically have a nap time scheduled right after lunch.  But somewhere along the way, naps stop.  Teens avoid them, unless you count sleeping-in as a nap.  Eventually, once we reach the age of about 30 or so, adults wise up and again recognize the value and fun of the simple act of taking a nap.  Dad always demonstrated the art of nap taking when we were kids, but he blamed it on the chair!  [There might be more truth to his musings than we realized back then—see The Great Menace by Year-Struck.]

Since 1999, there has even been a National Nap Day!  It is the Monday after changing the clocks for Daylight Saving Time. [Don’t get me started on losng an hour of sleep again!]  This holiday was proposed by Dr. William Anthony when he was a professor at Boston University and founding partner of The Napping Company.  According to Anthony, “Our goal is to encourage folks to take a nap wherever they may be, at home, at the workplace or on vacation, and to make it a regular part of their healthy lifestyle.” Research clarifies the benefits of taking a nap:

  1. Boosts Alertness
  2. Increases Learning and Memory
  3. Improves Creativity
  4. Increases Productivity
  5. Lifts the Napper’s Spirits
  6. Reduces Stress

dogs nappingWith so many good reasons for taking a nap, wouldn’t it make sense to practice this activity every day? Heck, animals make it look so easy.  Overall, it seems more a natural behavior than a learned activity. Even though few businesses encouragecat napping napping as part of the work day, creative employees can make effective use of lunch breaks and lulls between meetings for grabbing a quick nap. Whether at work, at home, or on vacation, Harvard Health Letter (November 2009) offers a few tips on how to take the best nap ever.

  1. Keep it short:  About 30 to 40 minutes is ideal, but even as short as 10 or so can help.
  2. Find a dark, quiet, cool place:  Any location works, but these three traits are conducive to falling asleep.
  3. Plan on it:  Of course, we all just doze off at times, but if nap time is part of a regular routine, it will be a more efficient use of time.
  4. Time your caffeine:  It is best to coordinate rests with the boost in energy provided by typical pick-me-ups like coffee or chocolate.
  5. Don’t feel guilty:  Remember naps are linked to increased productivity and creativity.

Given the obvious importance of naps if one wants to stay alert, creative, and productive, I think I will add “Improving My Napping Techniques” to my ongoing to-do list.  How about you?  Do you regularly nap?  What advice can you give?

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 No day is so bad it can’t be fixed with a nap.  Carrie Snow

 There is more refreshment and stimulation in a nap, even of the briefest, than in all the alcohol ever distilled.  Edward Lucas

 I count it as a certainty that in paradise, everyone naps.  Tom Hodgkinson

 A day without a nap is like a cupcake without frosting.  Terri Guillemets

 Naps are nature’s way of reminding you that life is nice – like a beautiful, softly swinging hammock strung between birth and infinity.  Peggy Noonan

 Think what a better world it would be if we all, the whole world, had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down on our blankets for a nap.    Barbara Jordan

Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.  Denis Leary

 I catnap now and then, but I think while I nap, so it’s not a waste of time.    Martha Stewart

Topic M: Being a Mom

Mothers.

Mom & Dad with All Five Girls, 1955

Mom & Dad with All Five Girls, 1955

As Erma Bombeck explains in her 1974 column “When God Created Mothers,” mothers have many special features that help them care and comfort their kids no matter what.  I saw those traits in action in my own mother, who I love, miss and have written about several times.  I also observe many friends as they interact with their kids who need different things from their moms as they move from childhood to adulthood.  A recent tweet shared in the news was a mother saying in exasperation something like the following:  “My three-year-old either needs a nap or an exorcism.”  It is obvious to me that you need lots of patience and a good sense of humor in order to be a good mom.

Of course, since I am not a mother myself, I know I can never truly understand what it means to be a mom.  But I can still recognize that the following video does a great job presenting an accurate presentation of a typical day for a typical mom.  Whether you are a mom or not, I think you will enjoy “The Mom Song Sung to the William Tell Overture” by Anita Renfroe. [If the video does not play for you, here is a link as well that might help. The link I have works for me when I go directly to it, but not through this website–hope it plays for you.  Here’s a version with just the lyrics.]

Of course, the kids would have their own answer to the mom singing above, hence “The Child’s Song”:

What about the dads?  This last video starts with feedback a typical dad would say called “Dadsense.”  [The rest of the video is a hoot too!]

What do you think?  Did these videos have a ring of truth?  What are the favorite things about your Mom or your Kids that you love and hate at the same time that could go in your own video? For me, I am going to go put on a sweater before I look at some old photographs—I’m sure Mom would be cold if she were here. If your Mom is still around to drive you crazy sometimes, give her a hug.  And tell her you love her.  No reason, just because, because, because.

First Memories of Going to School

Learning ClipArtMy career has always been grounded in the academic environment.  I taught college-level writing for almost 25 years and then moved into serving as an academic dean in the California community colleges.  One of my favorite activities as a dean is conducting classroom evaluations and holding the follow-up meetings; these activities provide a chance to be in the classroom again and to talk shop.  No matter what else we do, teachers always seem to stay teachers at heart.  That is one reason I seek out blogs devoted to teaching—they give a glimpse into the classroom.  One of my favorite blogs is Classroom in Microcosm written by Siobhan Curious.

Siobhan has recently started a recurring theme on her blog where she is asking readers to share their experiences about teaching and learning.  She is calling this experiment The Writing on Learning Exchange.  The first prompt she offered is “What are your first memories of going to school?”  In encouraging her to start this Exchange, I committed to providing responses.  My response is listed below.  But please do more than read my response.  Explore her website and consider participating as well.  Hers is a great site!

 FIRST MEMORIES OF GOING TO SCHOOL

 It feels like I have been in education my entire life.  I went straight from high school to college and then into the teaching profession.  My general experience with being in school is positive, probably part of why I chose my profession:  I did not want to leave the academic environment.

school house clipartWhen I look back on my educational experience, I can point to favorite teachers and specific positive activities and events.  In 6th and 8th grade respectively, Mr. Dixon and Mrs. Perkins both helped instill my love of reading.  In 7th grade, I ended up owning a tarantula as a pet, a carryover from a classroom exhibit. In 8th grade, Mrs. Welch helped me see the advantages and excitement of teaching as a profession.  In high school, our science field trips were exciting and got me started on trekking into nature to marvel at the beauty and diversity that could be found. My favorite high school classes were my English classes.  We read some great literature, and I started writing short stories and serving on the literary journal and yearbook committees.  I had great arguments with my junior English teacher about the composition process of all things.  She tolerated me well and did not squash my spirit.

Thus, my general memory of being in school says I always did well in my classes, and teachers were my friends. However, when I look to remembering my first experiences in attending school, my mind is blank.  When we moved from Chicago, Illinois, to Temple City, California, I was five and a half.  I was enrolled in first grade at Gidley School.  For years, I thought my education started at that time.  But years ago, as an adult, I was helping my mother sort old photos and found a school group photograph from my semester in kindergarten in Chicago. I have no memory of that experience—and my mom remembered very little as well.  In the photograph, I look very very sad.  From later classroom experiences, I know I was always a “good” kid, not causing trouble or demanding attention.  Given that perspective, I can only assume that I was quiet but behaved and thereby possibly overlooked by an over worked teacher.

snowmen clipartOnce in classes in California, my memories are not much sharper.  My only vivid memory from first grade is being teased by other kids.  I have no clue if or how the teacher responded.  At that time, I loved to draw.  My drawings were of what I knew—snowmen and snowball fights, birds from the yard.  As an adult looking back, I recognized that my general birds were actually wrens with their little upturned tails.  In Southern California, there was no snow, no snowmen, and no birds that looked like the ones I drew. The kids looked at my drawings and laughed and teased—and I stopped drawing.  I do not think it was bullying as much as kids are insensitive when reacting to things that are new and different.

Looking back, I realize the power of feedback—or lack thereof, at least for me.  It is so important for those first teachers to connect one-on-one with each student, to give some positive feedback, to somehow try to minimize the teasing that might come from other students.  Our children need to feel wanted and welcomed at school, to get excited by learning. Kids are impressionable and react as best they can to fit in, to be accepted.  The teachers can help guide those reactions and adjustments.  I was lucky:  by about third grade, I was getting positive feedback and the love of learning and of school kicked in.  In retrospect, I worry about our kids who do not experience that turn-around, who always feel out of it in the classroom, possibly overlooked by a busy teacher.

As an adult, when I was making a decision to pursue teaching as my profession, I was adamant that I did not want to teach at the elementary level.  I always said it was because I did not have the patience, but I am now wondering if it is in part because those early education years were not good for me.  I opted, instead, to teach at the college level, but my area of specialty was developmental students, the adults who did not master the learning from their earlier education and needed help with a second chance.  For me, lots of positive reinforcement and one-on-one interaction were the core of my teaching philosophy.  Students, no matter what the age, need positive intervention on their efforts, so they can see what works and what doesn’t, make changes, and improve. As an administrator, one of my top concerns has always been providing the training for teachers on classroom learning strategies that would help them better interact with their students as individuals.

Through this writing prompt I am realizing that my non-memories may have had a bigger impact on my approach to education as a teacher and an administrator than I ever realized.

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 Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.    Chinese Proverb

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.     William Butler Yeats

The teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring a pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.  Horace Mann

Knowledge—like the sky—is never private property. No teacher has a right to withhold it from anyone who asks for it. Teaching is the art of sharing.  Abraham Joshua Heschel

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MAYA ANGELOU!

Photo from Official Website

Photo from Official Website

Today Maya Angelou celebrates her 85th birthday. 

She was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, but she was mostly raised in Stamps, Arkansas by her grandmother.  From her grandmother, Maya learned spirituality, and the importance of family, faith, and the celebration of life.  Living in the rural south, she also experienced racial discrimination and being raped at the age of seven by her mother’s boyfriend. Fortunately, she overcame the horrors of her past and has become a national treasure, sharing her insights and life lessons through her work and art.

Angelou’s official website provides details about her and lavels her “a global renaissance woman.”  A Biography Website provides a short video, giving a quick review of her life and work.  The specifics of Angelou’s life are impressive, but even the highlights help show the full range of all she has done.  During WWII, she moved to San Francisco, where she won a scholarship to study dance and acting.  She also worked at a range of jobs, including being the first black female cable car conductor. Her son Guy was born in 1944.  From the mid-1950s on, she was an actor, dancer, writer and civil rights activist.  In the 1960s, she traveled extensively and became more involved with the civil rights movement back in the United States.

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsShe wrote her most popular work, the first of several memoirs, in 1970:  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This was the work that introduced me to this impressive woman.  But her talents do not stop there.  Her creativity continues to be expressed through acting, writing, directing, and lecturing. In 1971, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poetry Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die.  Since 1982, she has held the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University.  Angelou mentions accepting this appointment during the following interview on the Merv Griffin Show in 1982.

In 1993, she composed and recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Clinton’s inauguration; she was the first poet to be invited to read at this event since Robert Frost read at JFK’s inauguration in 1961. The poem’s themes focus on change, inclusion and responsibility.  In 2000, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts and in 2008 the Lincoln Medal.  Angelou continues to write and to present lectures across the country.  She has become a more familiar face to many because of her friendship with Oprah Winfrey, which included several visits on Oprah’s show.  Oprah praises Angelou as a friend and mentor, a role Angelou plays informally for the country through her writings and insights about life.  In the following video, Oprah shares one of the lessons Angelou shared with her that Oprah now shares regularly with others:  “When you know better, you do better.”

phenomenal woman“Phenomenal Woman” is my favorite poem of those written by Maya Angelou.  It was first published in 1978 along with the poem “Still I Rise.” However, they were also included in a book that was published in 1995:  Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women.  This poem shows her strength, her spirit, her confidence, even if she does not fit society’s norms. Her strength and confidence, which are so very justified, can give us all hope for ourselves and society.  I wish Maya Angelou, a truly phenomenal woman, a great birthday today as she continues to voice confidence and celebration for all of us.  Her website is right when it states, “Dr. Angelou’s words and actions continue to stir our souls, energize our bodies, liberate our minds, and heal our hearts.”

The following video gives a musical version of “Phenomenal Woman,” some tidbits about her life, and at the end a reading of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou herself.  “Phenomenal Woman” as well as a few other quotes are presented after the video.

Maya AngelouPhenomenal Woman  

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

 

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SOME WORDS OF WISDOM FROM MAYA ANGELOU

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.

My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.

It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.

Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.

Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.

If you don’t like something, change. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.

 A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

 History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MAYA ANGELOU POEM OR BOOK?

TOPIC L: LUMOSITY: What Are You Buying?

Have you seen this commercial by Lumosity.com?

A few years ago I knew some basics about brain research and the possible impact on education, but I had not yet heard the word “Lumosity.”  Now I know that Lumosity.com is a company that claims its games will help users expand their brain power.  Its commercials are frequently aired on television, on the Internet and even on some WordPress blogs.  The specific Lumosity.com commercial shown above offers an effective, persuasive presentation about the company and its services.

First, the speakers in this Lumosity commercial are attractive adults, not stuffy looking scientists and experts; they are common everyday folks that the viewers can relate to and trust, even if they are predominately young adults. Second, even if the viewers are older, they can still identify with the speakers and their hopes for change:  they want to be “quicker,” “stay sharp,” “remember people’s names,” “concentrate a little better,” “learn faster,” and “just not miss stuff.”  Doesn’t everyone want those things?  Of course they do, either for themselves or their loved ones (children, parents). That common bond is what the makers of the commercial are hoping for in order to hook the viewers into wanting what their service claims to provide.

Lumosity Brain GraphicThird, the informational portion of the commercial is presented by a friendly upbeat masculine voice-over that assures viewers they can accomplish improved mental tasks through neuroplasticity disguised as games.  My bet is that most viewers—if they have heard that term—cannot give a definition, but it sounds good, maybe even cutting edge.  The makers of the commercial are looking for a fine balance:  the unknown of scientific research countered with the ease of incorporating the scientific into the viewers’ lives.  Accomplishing this task is easy—just join Lumosity and “discover what your brain can do.”  The suggestion that one can easily harness scientific advances makes the service sound that much more appealing.

lumoisty woman imageFinally, the commercial’s quick pacing gives it a modern, hip feel and the hand-drawn  images that augment the pictures and show technology in action suggest the power and use of technology without being overwhelming or intimidating.  Using Lumosity.com is almost like child’s play.  The emphasis stays on the speakers or users of Lumosity—and they always look so content and happy.  Overall, the commercial gives its viewers the impression that modern brain research can be a tool to help them improve mentally in a variety of areas.

The promise of Lumosity.com was intriguing.  I was hooked enough to want to explore its service more fully.  I wondered about its scientific claims, about its website and what it could offer, and what others thought about the experience.  I started my exploration by visiting the Lumosity website to take advantage of the advertised free membership that would allow me to experiment directly with its learning games.

EXPLORING THE LUMOSITY WEBSITE & ITS EXTENDED MARKETING

logo lumosityThe Lumosity.com website is very user friendly and offers the same tone and presentation approach already seen in the commercials.  The people pictured on the website are everyday folks, friendly-looking, pretty.  Eventually, testimonials are provided, representative of a range of ages and needs:  student working to improve at school, elderly patient worried about dementia, and worker wanting to advance on the job.  Everyone can identify.

The website also makes its viewers an opening promise:  “Harness your brain’s neuroplasticity and train your way to a brighter life.  Lumosity turns neuroscience breakthroughs into fun, effective games.  Stimulate your brain today.”  Even if viewers are not quite sure what neuroplasticity is, Lumosity is betting they will at least want to explore the possibility of maximizing their brain potential.  It is a friendly easy hook that leads to the next step:  signing up for a free trial offer.

If the viewer accepts the invitation as I did and opens a free account, then additional choices and immediate feedback are provided to personalize the service.  The technology used to offer the feedback in response to choices is not new. Most of us see it at work every day:  emails from Amazon.com suggesting purchases based on past buying history, CVS tracking sales to amass savings coupons, and computer games tracking high scores and time on task, to name just a few examples.  But even though common, the personal touch is noticed and makes the viewer feel special.

The content being offered—like in the commercials—is something no one would say no to.  Viewers are offered a menu that will help them improve in four general areas:  attention, speed, flexibility, and problem solving.  In each category, the viewer can select up to four sub-headings within the general topic to explore further.  Under “attention” the sub-headings are focus, concentration, avoiding distractions, and improving productivity and precision.  Now, what viewer is going to say, “I’m great in all those areas and do not need any improvement”?  Lumosity is counting on that realization or concern by the viewers because its goal is to provide the personalized gaming routine to help each viewer improve in selected areas.

thumb_lrg_memoryMatrixThe selection process is immediate and viewers can start playing games to improve their brain functions as soon as they have made their choices.  The games are fun and use the standard technology found in online gaming and computerized learning programs to keep score, note improvements, and track progress. If you play the same game twice, I bet your score will improve as mine did; such results confirm the site’s claim that their games will help you improve. References are also made to the science that supports the games, but in general terms with no complicated or technical explanations; viewers can explore the science further if they wish.  This persuasive strategy lends legitimacy to the science because sources are cited and follow-up can be explored even if few viewers actually stop to scrutinize the details.

Lumosity boasts 35 million users, and I expect my free user account is part of that number.  It does not surprise me that people sign up once they get to the website.  The promise of new science harnessed to address each person’s individualized learning needs is strong.  It is easy to sign up for a free account, and it takes only a few minutes a day of playing games, according to the advertising, to achieve positive results. The free account, however, does not give the customer access to everything. The main hook is that to really unlock your potential you need to join and get access to the full range of puzzles and games designed just for you.

discount image clipartOn that first visit, the customer is in luck:  anyone who signs up on that first visit saves 10% on the annual fee.  It’s a bargain!  Of course, my bet is that the discount is built into the system for every day and every viewer, so it is really just a semblance of a discount.  But it makes the viewer feel lucky!  Of course, since I did not sign up that first day, I was eventually offered a 35% discount after about 2 weeks.  Maybe 10% off is not such a good deal for the first-time visitor.

The actual costs do not seem too bad, but of course that is relative to each person’s financial situation.  The monthly cost is $14.95—so equivalent roughly to a lunch out somewhere, if you do not order dessert or a drink.  The viewer can also enroll with an annual fee ($6 a month, paid at one time), a two-year fee ($4.50 a month paid at one time), or a lifetime fee ($269.96).  The discount only applies to the annual fee.  I did not officially sign up and pay any fees for a couple of reasons.  First, I wanted to see how long the free-trial would go on, and second, I wondered how Lumosity would extend its marketing activities.

The main follow-up marketing tool came through a series of emails, 11 in all as of 1 April 2013.  The first was a welcome statement, and then an offer of a 20% discount if I’d return and sign up.  Once I did not sign up within the three-day time frame, then I was told via other emails that “research suggests you shouldn’t procrastinate” and later “possible links between lifetime engagement and Alzheimer’s [exist]” and “everyone experiences cognitive decline as they age.”  Of course, these messages assume I have been slovenly in my thinking or at least forgetful, not that I have decided against signing up.  These secondary messages play on most people’s fear of declining abilities as they age.

Another softer persuasive approach provides positive reminders that tie back to the initial promises of improved learning that everyone would appreciate: “Get a more efficient brain,” Learn “the secrets of Lumosity Superusers,” and “Train for a brighter Tomorrow.”   Testimonials are given as well, referencing a range of people who have benefitted from the service in terms of age and needs.   Another inducement was an increased discount from 20% to 30% and then eventually 35% off.

The emails also present snippets of the research, no detailed analyses but an increased use of scientific terms such as fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and n-back tests.  These terms, of course, are not really new, having been in use for decades.  But the science summaries are interesting and give some proof that work on memory games can improve one’s learning potential.

GENERAL CUSTOMER FEEDBACK

I like puzzles, so the games on the Lumosity.com website are fun.  For that reason alone, I could see people signing up for the service, in addition to the promise of increased mental acuity.  The costs are not astronomical, and the increased discounts make the viewer feel special and wanted.  However, before making a decision, it is always wise to see what complaints or praise may have surfaced about the service.  I did some Internet searching matching “lumosity” with “praise,” “complaints,” and “feedback.”  My search discovered several sites sharing customer feedback, good and bad.

First, I reviewed the Better Business Bureau report on Lumosity.  The company (Lumos Labs, Inc.) resides in San Francisco and registered with the Better Business Bureau in February 2008; the company was started in October 2006.  The report I viewed tallied the complaints for the last three years.  A total of 71 complaints were registered as of 1 April 2013; all were resolved to the customer’s satisfaction except seven.  The complaints fell into three categories:  advertising/sales, 9; billing/collection, 35; and product/service, 27.  The numbers are not huge, especially when Lumosity reports serving 35 million users. The Better Business Bureau gives Lumosity an A rating.

The other sites mimic the general information shared on the Better Business Bureau site.  For the most part, these other sites shared anecdotal examples of problems and complaints.  Some of the complaints went back to 2008, and some comments were positive noting the small number of complaints being raised. One example site shared 18 reviews, giving an average score of 3 out of 5 as its rating, saying overall that Lumosity was not recommended.  Another site shared 14 reviews. Amina Elahi on the Viewpoints website offers a great balanced overview of what to consider when exploring signing up with Lumosity.

From the range of sites I reviewed, the main praise is the ease of use and the fun of the games. Several of the positive comments emphasize that the users can feel their mental acuity being challenged and expanded.  One lawyer posted his delight with the dramatic improvements and the carry-over to the rest of his life.  He concluded, “Because the only thing I’ve really been doing differently is playing Lumosity, I believe Lumosity really has made me smarter, quicker, more aware of my surroundings and sequences of events, and it has improved my memory.”

The complaints fall into several categories.  A few people think signing up for Lumosity has increased the amount of spam they receive. However, the company adamantly asserts it does not sell member information.  I have been signed up for several weeks on an account I rarely use and have not seen an increase in spam to that email account.  One reviewer carefully parses the language on the privacy statement and notes that Lumosity reserves the right to use its customer data at its discretion.  In addition, when the customer asked that his information be taken out of the system, he was told that was not possible.  While Lumosity’s stated norm seems to be not selling customer information, the company reserves the right to use the data as it sees fit. A handful of others complain of technical glitches that hamper their use of the games.  On my visits, I have had no technical problems.

Some users also complain that customer service is hard to reach and feedback is slow in coming.  There is no phone-in customer service or online chat option to get immediate help and feedback.  One problem is that if customers track down a phone number (not provided on the website) in their attempt to talk to someone, they either leave a message that is never returned or reach a voice mailbox that is constantly full.  The website explains that the way to reach customer service is via an email sent from a link on the website that is tied to each customer’s account.  There is no mention of how quickly someone will respond to an inquiry, but it is suggested the customer check back to see the answer. The problem seems to me not that there is no customer service but that how to access that service is not intuitive to all users and does not provide immediate feedback.  In addition, the users will not even find the email link option unless they click on the right box on the website.

The primary complaints, however, focus on automatic renewals that the customers feel were unexpected; a different version is that when someone tries to cancel, the request does not go through easily. When I checked the website with this complaint in mind, it was evident that the automatic renewal aspect of every membership is not clearly stated.  The customer needs to click the “get more information” boxes to get any sense of what “recurring billing” means.  On other sites I frequent, the customer has a chance to check a box agreeing to automatic renewal or to the saving of payment information.  Not so on Lumosity.  The main assumption by the customers seems to be that a one-month trial membership would not have to be canceled; rather, an extended membership would have to be initiated.  That is not the case.  The customers must cancel by going into the account information area of the website—and they need to do that in a timely manner.

Again, the numbers are not huge in terms of the complaints that were reported on the various sites I stumbled upon.  Still, they suggest areas of concern that a discerning customer would explore before making a decision to purchase the service.  A few people complain the service is expensive, but that is relative to each person’s circumstances.  An annual membership of $72 before any discounts are taken does not sound too bad.  But each customer needs to decide if the service quality makes this amount a wise investment.  Before finalizing that decision, customers should decide what they are hoping to get out of the membership: playing fun games or extensive improvement in their brain function.  If the latter, then the science behind Lumosity needs some exploration.

WHAT ABOUT THE SCIENCE?

researchLumosity readily uses the scientific terms neuroplasticity, fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and n-back tests across its website and in some of its commercials. The parent company Lumos Labs, Inc. conducts some of its own research and shares that and other research through links on its website. A printable brochure is also available giving an overview of the science behind the service.  The executive summary of that document explains, “We now understand that, with the right kind of stimulation and activity, the brain can dramatically change and remodel itself to become more efficient and effective in processing information, paying attention, remembering, thinking creatively, and solving novel problems.”  The rest of the document summarizes a variety of research studies.

The research cited by Lumosity looks good, but I tend to be skeptical, especially when a company offers its own researched proof.  Not surprisingly, I was able to find an article by one of Lumosity’s competitors—BrainHQ—that claims it utilizes the research better than Lumosity does.  The article’s opening line claims that BrainHQ is “the only program to have been scientifically tested on a large-scale.”

The crux of the research looks at the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligences. Fluid intelligence—the ability to think and reason such as is used in generating problem solving strategies—has typically been said to peak in its development in late adolescence. However, crystallized intelligence—the ability to use specific knowledge and past experience in new situations—can continue developing over time.  About.com offers this general review:  “Both types of intelligence are equally important in everyday life. For example, when taking a psychology exam, you might need to rely of fluid intelligence to come up with a strategy to solve a statistics problem, while you must also employ crystallized intelligence to recall the exact formulas you need to use.”

For over 40 years, the general consensus that fluid intelligence could not be improved through training was the accepted norm.  In April 2008, Stephanie Jaeggi and others published research that suggested the opposite:  test subjects who worked on various mental activities did show an improvement in their fluid intelligence levels.  In essence, training could make you smarter. However, most neuroscientists do not yet agree, and others have not yet been able to duplicate Jaeggi’s conclusions. The research is promising but does not yet offer conclusive proof; much more work is needed.

In 2012, The New York Times offered a great article explaining the concepts and the research.  This article shows the promise of the current research being undertaken but concludes that more research is needed.  Also, the article suggests it is likely that even if the new studies are accurate the improvement in fluid intelligence would probably not be permanent unless the training was maintained.  Basically, mental training to get smarter is like working out at the gym to get stronger—you have to keep doing the exercises to retain the benefits.  According to Jaeggi, “Do we think [the test subjects are] now smarter for the rest of their lives by just four weeks of training? We probably don’t think so. We think of it like physical training: if you go running for a month, you increase your fitness. But does it stay like that for the rest of your life? Probably not.”

The following BBC report gives an overview of additional research that seems to suggest that the brain games—although they look at those you purchase as independent units rather than website services—will not really make you smarter.  They conclude what seems confirmed by my experience on the Lumosity website:  with practice you will get better at the games. Just don’t expect that those improvements will necessarily help in any other area.

MY RECOMMENDATION:  KNOW WHAT YOU ARE BUYING

I appreciate well-constructed advertising campaigns.  When I taught critical thinking to college students, I would often assign students to analyze commercials or political campaigns, so the students could better see what all was being “sold” through the commercials and materials associated with the campaigns. When Lumosity.com is assessed, it becomes clear that it is selling several things through its website:

  • Customers’ desire to improve their mental acuity balanced with fear or trepidation that mental acuity will decline as people age.
  • Confidence in the research claims expressed by the company, but Lumos Labs, Inc. does not acknowledge any research that counters its claims or questions the long-term benefit of playing the games. Also, Jaeggi’s most promising research was published in 2008, but Lumos Labs, Inc. was established in 2006.
  • A user-friendly website that provides extensive games for the customer and all the follow-through of keeping score and tracking progress.
  • Round-the-clock access to over 35 fun games!
  • Customer Service, but it is not obvious that access is only online via email with no assurances as to how quickly feedback will be provided.
  • Easy membership pathways, but with a range of discounts depending on how long you wait to enroll.  It seems clear that the quicker you sign up, the more you pay.
  • Recurring billing is practiced on all membership options, but that detail is not as clear and obvious to the customers as some customers would like.  It is important to explore all links for extra information and to read the fine print.

Obviously, there is a lot being sold.  If you are determined to improve your mental abilities via the games and puzzles offered by Lumosity.com, check the research and remember that it is unlikely that permanent improvement is possible.  To maintain what improvements you develop, you will probably need to keep playing the games via a paid annual membership. [A fact Lumosity would undoubtedly appreciate!]  If you have fun playing the games and they help you relax while providing some mental challenges and improvements on isolated activities, buy a membership—just play hard-to-get for a couple weeks to get the best deal.  Lumosity.com offers a great advertising campaign and fun games based on the promise of recent brain research.  Before you decide, just be certain you know what all you are buying and the reality of the claims being made.  Then have fun!

ME?  I will probably go back to play a few games over and over on Lumosity.com via my free trial membership.  There does not seem to be a limit on how long such a membership will last.  I am not concerned with getting access to more than the couple of games available without a paid membership.  My budget has been tight for the last several years, so $47 (the annual fee reduced by 35%) could be better used in other ways:  couple lunches out with friends, gas for a trip down to LA to see my dad, and buying four or more books on Amazon.com are the first three examples that come to mind.

crossword puzzleI do like games and recognize that practice playing mental games can improve my memory and concentration, at least for the short term, so I will play solitaire a bit more often as well as complete crossword puzzles and sodokus. There are no bells and whistles or even tracking of my progress, but they are fun and relaxing.  Apparently, other computer games—even the ones the kids play for hours on end that involve developing strategies and hand-eye coordination—would help too.   Crossword puzzle image

So, how about you?  Have you joined or explored Lumosity?  What advice would you give?  What activities do you practice to stay mentally sharp?

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