It’s All About Chunking

Posted: June 7, 2013 in Dance, Exercise, Learning
Tags: , , , , , , ,

As I immerse myself further into this process of trying to improve the way that I learn, I keep finding ways that learning primarily physical skills and primarily mental skills are deeply related.  I think I have some resistance to this idea, having spent my teens and early adulthood deeply entrenched in brain exercise and shunning physical exercise.  But when it comes right down to it the brain is driving the muscles in any physical skill so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the line I was attempting to draw between physical skills and mental skills is certainly fuzzy and probably completely artificial.  Perhaps the only way to really place them on a spectrum is how many calories they burn.

I first encountered the term chunking with respect to memory techniques.  The idea being that it’s pretty hard to remember a number sequence like one nine four two two zero six one seven eight nine three one four one five nine, but if you chunk it into the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Seattle area code, year the bill of rights was signed and the first six digits of PI (assuming those are things that you already have referents for), it’s perfectly easy.  This and similar mechanisms are what allow us to think about more information than what our 7 +/- 2 slots of working memory will hold.  Another classic example is master level chess players who chunk the layout of the whole chess board as on ‘piece’ of information.

But what struck me as equally obvious (in retrospect) chunking behavior was the patterns that the tap teacher was using to warm up in class the other day.  He started with a broad pattern that obviously no-one in the class had learned before .  Everyone was able to get the pattern and even do a reasonable job of keeping up even when done pretty fast, this includes yours truly who is taking tap II for the first time along with a bunch of people who obviously have a deeper background in tap.  But then he threw in a heel step between every step in the broader pattern.  So if we started with A, B, C, D where each of those is a different step, the pattern then becomes A heel, B heel, C heel, D heel and there is something going on twice as often.  So for anyone who had enough experience to throw in that extra heel step there was just a little extra information and not a whole lot of additional difficulty.  But for myself, who has only done heel steps in a couple of very limited circumstances, it pretty much doubled the information and the difficulty.  The point being, that’s very close to the same situation as the memory exercise above.  This is also probably related to the multi-tasking post from a while back (if you haven’t caught the comments on that post it’s worth a [re]visit).

Then just as I was thinking about chunking and physical skills, I had the opportunity to take a back to basics version of the vinyasa yoga class that I’ve been working on for the last few months.  A large part of the class is structured around variations on the Dancing Warrior sequence.  The idea being that you have a small series of poses A, B, C, D and then you add extra stuff in between (sound familiar?).  The thing that was neat about going back to basics is that we did the series a dozen times during the class where in a normal class you do it only a few times and enough extra stuff gets thrown in the middle that you don’t necessarily even see the overarching patterns sometimes.  So learning the pattern by getting the basic sequence down and then being able repeat the pattern as one chunk is useful as a student and probably essential to the teacher.  One of the reasons that this popped for me was that we had a back to basics class because it was one of the first times this particular teacher had taught this type of yoga.

And then I have been playing with a new (to me ) code library to do some scraping of information off of web sites for one of my other reboot projects.  It took me a little while to get spun up on the library.  But once I did, I had the chunks in my head for how to use it and my ability to code the scraping of the tenth site was literally ten times faster than the code for the first site.  While some of this was because I ended up extending the library for my own particular needs, much of it was that once enough of the system in in my head I definitely get into a flow state while coding.

So I can obviously chunk information in a domain that I’ve lived in on and off since I was thirteen (programming).  I think I am starting to chunk a physical skill that I’ve been practicing for three months, but I’m obviously much less effective at that.  So it seems to me that part of what I need to do is get better at chunking in new domains.  I can see how that’s done in specific domains.  For instance, when playing the piano, there are many defined exercises like scales and chord progressions.  For tap, there are basic technique exercises.  Are there more fundamental chunking exercises that would help in all of these domains and the many more that I would like to explore?

 

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