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Pomodoro, Isaac Asimov or Just Repetition?

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

The blackboard was always a symbol of fear to me as a child in a Catholic grammar school. Boys who ventured with great trepidation to the board had good reason for their fear because corporal punishment was a regular part of their education, but not mine.

It stood there like a black, dull void waiting for that first squeaky touch of chalk and a resultant whack of a yardstick or a pointer, but only for the boys. Viewing the viciousness of the nuns in their zeal to pound knowledge into male students was reason for me to be in a state of contagious anxiety. Psychologists now may see it as this or a form of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) unrecognized when I was a lowly grammar school student.

Nuns were the ultimate authority figures and some were quite vicious. One of my sisters was misfortunate enough to be in the path of a downward moving yardstick which landed smartly on her neck, leaving her permanently injured with Wry Neck. It's evident in her grammar school graduation photo.

Daily we were called on to stand and recite poems we learned by heart, some quite long. The belief was that rote memory was the way to help children learn. Fear of the consequences also formed a basic brick in the educational efforts in our school. Of course, in the process, the question of learning how to critique anything was absolutely verboten.

Unfortunately, some people haven't come up to speed on helping children to learn and they still depend on corporal punishment. A very disturbing example was on the internet today. A couple punished their 7-year-old son so severely that he died because he couldn't recite a number of Bible verses by heart. Where were their hearts?

Learning today has come a long way from the tortuous path of my youth. We know that repetition may reinforce some learning, but there are many ways to achieve our educational ends. One of them has a distinctly odd name and depends on rest periods rather than only intense sessions of repetition. The focus now is on exactly that; unfettered focus.

The Pomodoro Technique was named, quite by accident of possession of a tomato-shaped timer, by the proponent, Francesco Cirillo (who also has written books on it). As he tried to increase his learning capacity for new material, he experimented with a variety of methods, but the one that won the brass ring was based on this kitchen timer. BTW, if you want your very own pomodoro timer, Amazon has them or go here on the internet to select one for your computer. Or, check out an overview of the technique and consider an app that will suit your needs.

How do you do it? Set your goal, give yourself 20-30 minutes of unadulterated, focused attention on the goal and then give yourself a short rest. The latter is your reward, so it can be anything you choose like having a sandwich, watching a short film, taking a walk, picking up something you've been working on. But you MUST return to the task and do at least four 20-minute sessions with short breaks in between. Here's another good outline of how to set yourself on the path to conquering procrastination and attaining your learning or work goals.

Where in the world, you are asking, does Asimov fit in here? Isaac was the master of writing books on everything from science fiction to Shakespeare, chemistry and sex. He had incredible curiosity but an even more admirable and intense ability to maintain focus. However, even Isaac knew that the brain required a bit of novelty as he was working on nine books at one time.

While working on one book, he's come to the point where it became tedious or he'd hit a brick wall. Now, he pulled out another book, on a totally different topic, and switched into writing material for that book. That was his reward and he never varied it.

Asimov never went out to lunch, never sat looking out his bedroom window at the brick wall outside it, never interacted with an agent, secretary or editor (he did it all himself). Work was his focus and he produced 500 books by the time he died in 1992 and another 90K letters. Focus squared.

The schools have changed, the nuns have all gone on to their heavenly rewards and learning has changed. We are better off, researchers tell us, by maintaining a life-long life of learning than sitting and rocking on a porch in the South Pacific. Learning not only provides us with the tools for our evolving world, but a degree of safety to ward off dementia.

Up for a little tomato-based learning? I hope so because it's going to bring rewards you never dreamed were waiting for you.

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