Chunking: Homeschooling’s Secret Weapon

Homeschoolers Are Chunkers

Education has been using the same model for far too long. It looks something like this: schedule the whole day, section it into hours, section hours into classes, fill an hour with a class, and repeat.

The problem? For lots of reasons, that old model doesn’t work so well.
To better understand why, take a look at homeschooling. Alternate models of education continue to turn out a higher-performing student even when actual “learning time” is dramatically reduced from the public school model.

The Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) commissioned a study drawing data for the 2007-2008 school year from multiple standardized testing services. Once again, the national average percentile scores were higher in all subject areas by at least 34 percentile points, and as high as 39 percentile points. Factors such as parental college degrees, how much parents spent on education, level of state regulation, and sex of the students made little difference in the range of scores in all areas among the homeschooled children.

This trend continues in a 2015 study, which begs the question:

How are homeschoolers so dang good at teaching?

While there are various arguments on why homeschooled students outperform their peers, from personal experience, I can attest that parents who homeschool (whether they know it or not) practice the art of “chunking.”

What Is Chunking?

Educational chunking is the process by which individual pieces of information are bound together into a meaningful whole. In other words, it’s the savvy of taking a large piece of information and breaking it down to palatable portions for the student.

Chunking isn’t a new idea. George A. Miller’s famous 1956 paper, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus Or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” estimated the limit on our working memory. In that same paper, he outlined a solution, which he called chunking.

Chunking is the simple art of breaking a big item into several smaller items to increase retention.

Educational chunking requires carefully examining the manner in which students will experience new content. If you were looking for loftier words with intricate meanings, you won’t get it here. With chunking, no words are wasted.

Chunking is used in motor learning, memory training systems, expertise and skilled memory effects, short-term memory, and long-term memory structures.

The Folly Of Traditional Methods

Outdated methods of teaching continue to be put into use, even in forward-thinking industries. If you were to look at all the news that surrounds Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) you’d see an industry struggling to take advantage of available, neuro-aligned methods.

The issue at hand is not MOOCs per se, but more the manner in which they approach teaching. Far too often, “streaming lectures” are called online education.
The problem is that streaming a lecture doesn’t deliver any better retention than sitting in the classroom. Again and again, studies show that sitting in a lecture for 50 minutes, scribbling down some notes, and circling back next week with a brief review IS NOT the best way to learn.

Why We Chunk

I could point at nearly anybody, anywhere, and find them with their face firmly planted in the screen of their mobile device. Have you ever wondered how long each of them stays focused on one thing while interacting with that screen?
The answer is 8…SECONDS!

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, research from January of 2014 says the average attention span is 8 seconds. In Bull Riding that makes you money. In education that causes ulcers.

Jokes aside, our short attention spans could be getting shorter. Fascinatingly, research from Microsoft Corp. suggests this is an adaptation to a mobile internet. With so many distractions vying for our attention, it’s tricky to focus on one task without interruption for too long.

Amusingly, the average attention span of a goldfish (from the same study) is 9 seconds. A goldfish has a better attention span than you do.

Chunking In Your Business

The good news is that anyone can learn how to chunk information. The next time you’re scheduled to present information, gather your materials in advance. Try to review them as if you were learning the content for the first time.  Then, take a pair of scissors and chop of your materials so you can rearrange the content. Pair similar content and ideas together.

When it comes to chunking, less is more. You may find that you have to save some material for next time.

To figure out what to teach, ask yourself, “If my leaves with one single bit of information, what should it be?” Make that item your focus and align the rest of your content around it.

The most obvious benefit of chunking is that a laundry list of ideas becomes just a few categories.

The less obvious benefit is that when one of those topics is brought up, it activates a larger neural pathway in the learner’s brain. That’s important because the more connections, the greater the power of cognitive processing. Another benefit of chunking is that it enables an educator to convey information in a shorter amount of time.

This simple process will help you better understand how to bring deep understanding to your organization.

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