Updated flashcards are a hit in the video age

May 04, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

Remember flashcards? With their dreary math problems like "9 x 7" or vocabulary words like "tributary" and "abolition"? They made learning about as much fun as a police interrogation.

But, with a single rivet and some punched-up writing, the old flashcard has been rejuvenated. Two series of books -- one for kids, one for adults -- have made learning a matter of swiveling a deck of 7-inch-by-2 1/2 -inch cards riveted together in one corner, whether your subject is math or home repair, geography or plumbing.

"Brain Quest," a series of quiz cards that come in nine editions from pre-school to seventh grade, came first and have become something of a cult classic among kids who have gotten their parents to buy almost 5 million sets in the two years since their introduction.

"Do It!" is a series of eight how-to books just hitting the stores now that similarly reduces subjects like car care and gardening to handy, riveted cards.

The two series were developed independently, "Brain Quest" by Workman Publishing and "Do It!" by Chronicle Books, but they share the same simple, functional design. (And the same price, $9.95, except for the pre-school and kindergarten versions of "Brain Quest," which are $1 more.)

For kids, the format makes for a fun, pick-a-card, any-card way to learn about science, history and other school subjects. For adults, bulky how-to manuals can be reduced to a format that can be taken up on the roof or under the sink.

Design is increasingly important today when trying to impart printed information in a video age, says the creator of the "Do It!" series.

"There is almost nothing more important than design today, when books are having to compete so strongly with visual media that are so sophisticated," says Ed Brash, head of Redefinition, an Alexandria, Va.,-based book packager that developed and sold the concept of the "Do It" series to Chronicle. "But while I'm determined that the design level be high, we're not sacrificing information."

"You might buy it because you like the packaging, but I've heard from the kids themselves, and I know it's more than the format," says Chris Welles Feder, who wrote the "Brain Quest" questions. "One of the reasons 'Brain Quest' is so popular is children love being challenged. So many games out there now are mindless and passive."

We convened our own brain trust to analyze "Brain Quest" -- four 10-year-olds at Lutherville Elementary School. Two of them, Olivia Trusty and Brian Drimer, had played them before and have their own sets, while Susan Fast and Farzad Sedaghat were first-timers. Amid comments of "Cool!" and "Yes!" and "Duh!" (for the easy answers), they all gave "Brain Quest" thumbs-up and JTC soon were trying the sets a grade higher than their own.

"Most of this we've already learned in school, since it's almost the end of the year," noted Susan, a fifth-grader, picking up on the fact that Ms. Feder followed the general curriculum for each year in writing the questions.

Olivia, a fifth-grader who correctly figured -- without a pencil and paper! -- that a car going 50 mph would take 1 1/2 hours to go 75 miles, says she and her friends like to challenge each other with questions.

Brian, a fourth-grader who fancies wars, zoned in on the history questions and declared them the best ones.

Farzad, also in fourth grade, seemed to use the questions and answers as starting-off points for further discussion: Why did the colonialists use "New" so often in naming their states? Why are there so many presidents no one has ever heard of?

That's what Ms. Feder hoped for in writing the thousands of questions (each set has from 750 to 1,500, with as many as 10 to a page). She tried for questions that involved a thought process, rather than simple memorization -- such as arranging a group of states from north to south, or figuring out the American version of "Juan" and "Jean." Amid the academic categories, like science, civics and English, are "grab bag" questions that can involve anything from the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip to the Chicago Bulls.

"One of my main goals was to write a game that requires children to think," says Ms. Feder, who has been writing textbooks and other educational materials for about 25 years. "One reason I got fed up with writing textbooks was that so often we were told to make them simpler. The directives would come down to the authors, 'Write it a grade below.' It's very discouraging."

She's been heartened that kids have been writing her to discuss the game. "It's been wonderful. Kids will write, 'I think this question is much too easy for the third grade.' Or, 'I don't think this is the right answer,' and they'll explain why," she says.

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