How about this? You’re presented with a page displaying a Boggle grid, and the solver generates both all possible words, and all possible words as if the board were jittered about in several ways. Our training program now has two lists of words, one of which is the list of words which actually exist, and another is a list of words which almost exist, but not quite. You’re presented one-at-a-time with a randomly-ordered mix of words from both lists, and your task is to classify words into “valid” and “invalid” based on whether they can be found on the board you see. This might take a great deal of thought at first, but ought to start becoming somewhat automatic at some point, as your brain rewires itself to be good at finding specific words in Boggle grids. It seems to me that this should improve performance in the game, without the “searching… searching…” dead time that occurs when actually playing, while the subconscious does its stuff.
Not that this is inherently useful; it’s just a mental-exercise sort of thing. In general I think there’s a very large benefit to the task of learning anything which can be realized by taking complex tasks and breaking them down into the simplest sub-tasks, which can then be drilled. Once each sub-task is mastered, specific sub-tasks can be combined and then drilled at the same time, in different combinations, until the complex skill as a whole comes together and seems like second nature. Because our brains are inherently poor at context-switching, it’s better to train each skill in as narrowly-focused a manner as possible. For example, I can play Tetris for hours and not really have to think– I’ve “automaticized” playing the game. The same goes for shifting gears in a manual-transmission car. Pianists don’t need to figure out how the notes in a musical score map to keys on the keyboard, they just know and play. (It’s said that Bach, I believe (or some other classical composer) was able to actually hear music while merely looking at a score.) And the same goes for many activities. Like typing. I think of the words I want to express, and my fingers automatically know where to go to press the right keys on the keyboard to emit them.
What if I were to turn my keyboard upside-down? How long would it take me to learn to type anywhere close to my current speed? Would the new positioning of the spacebar interfere with whatever speed I could attain, or would I begin to adapt to it pretty well? How long would it take?
What if everyday when I arrived at work, my keyboard (right-side-up, again, for the sake of sanity), had a new, randomized arrangement of keys? Could I learn how to learn a new keyboard layout very quickly and then begin typing at a decent speed on this new, randomized keyboard layout in a short amount of time? Interesting to ponder (as I lie awake and wonder).
Back to the piano example. I’d prefer to drill “mapping notes on a musical staff to their corresponding keys”, until I can essentially do that without thinking. Then I’ll move on to quickly reading rhythms. Then I’ll move on to playing chords. Throughout this, I can work on exercises that deal with reading/playing different notes with both hands, simultaneously. And finally, I can put it all together.
Contrast the above with the typical way of learning piano. The student starts with exceedingly simple pieces, tries to master them, and then moves on. But I find that once I know a simple piece well enough to have mastered it, I’m not reading the notes any more, I’m just playing by following the muscle memory which produces the song. What I really want is to learn how to read the notes, and mastering simple pieces is not the way to do that. Hard pieces, on the other hand, are too daunting to learn notes from. What’s a poor overly-idealistic piano student to do?
So I’ve had a lot of fun recently playing Rock Band for the X-Box. If the level of satisfaction which comes from learning complicated drum rhythms or button presses on the fake guitar could be built into a system for learning how to play a real piano keyboard, think how much easier it would be to learn, and how much more progress young kids who have hours of piano lessons foisted upon them would make. (I say this from personal experience, having had piano lessons for a couple years when in elementary/high school. That I didn’t learn all that much from these lessons is both partly a matter of motivation (to practice, which was a chore to me, at the time, as much as I wish now that I had done so, back then), and a matter of how the subject was meant to be learned– by playing those simple songs, referenced above. I generally ended up playing by ear what the teacher had demonstrated, and so never became all that great at reading music). I know there was that Miracle Piano keyboard a while back, but that’s probably dated by today’s technological standards. Why not an X-Box game with a MIDI-to-USB adapter for plugging in a standard electronic keyboard? Does such a thing exist?