Reference can help the brain do its best work

The other day I was sitting with an 8 year-old as she wrote out the date.  At one point she turned to look behind her at the analog clock on the wall.  “I always look at the clock to make sure my 9 is going the right way,” she told me.

Kids who know they’re prone to reversing letters often do a similar thing with the giant alphabets that hang in most elementary classrooms.  Here are a few other examples of reference options that can be helpful.

* a copy of the lower case letters, written out on wide-ruled paper with the dotted midline, for a child making the transition from all upper case

* a summary of the symbols used in a college math text

* the spellings of frequently used words

* the multiplication table

* the layout of the QWERTY keyboard

But aren’t these the things the students in question are supposed to be learning?  Won’t they not learn them if they’re just looking things up all the time?  Isn’t that cheating?

It depends on the circumstances.  No, you won’t want to take your multiplication table with you when you take a quiz on multiplication, or the  QWERTY map with you when you go in for a skills test at a temp agency.  But while you’re trying to learn these things, and/or trying to improve your skill in the area they pertain to, the reference might actually help you learn and retain faster.

What happens when you keep this kind of information on hand is twofold.  First, you can let go of the anxiety you might have about remembering.  Anxiety of any degree can be paralyzing and actually stall out the memory, among other things.  Second, you free up your brain to do the more interesting and important work of coming to understand whatever it is you’re studying.  If you’re busy memorizing, you’re using valuable brainpower which could be better spent elsewhere in the task.

Take the example of the multiplication (belabored though it may seem on this blog).  Kids who are chronically occupied with the job of memorizing single digit multiplication answers are rendered intellectually unavailable for conceptual advancement.  The higher order thinking skills and concepts that will actually offer them proficiency in math come right on the heels of the multiplication if not right on top of it, but kids are often not available to work at making sense of these skills and concepts because they’re too busy practicing multiplying.

The extreme stress and occupation of trying to remember gets in the way of learning, and it doesn’t even tend to help with remembering either.  If, each time you need to know what 8X7 is, you glance over at the table, find that it’s 56, and get on with your algebra, you have a better chance of mastering the algebra.  You also have a better chance of getting familiar with 8X7 if you can check it when you need to than if you instead stop the algebra, struggle to remember, berate yourself for not remembering, lose your train of thought, and eventually continue, unsure if it’s 56 or 58.

Used as tools, all of the reference options I mentioned can actually accelerate learning.  They remove the anxiety, making room not only for higher-order skill and better retention of basic information but for the possibility of actual enjoyment and accomplishment.  When enjoyment and authentic accomplishment join the fray, so too can commitment, discipline, and mastery.

PS: It bears mentioning that a guide to the musical notes can be very helpful for a child (or adult for that matter) determined to learn to play but bored or otherwise turned off by the slow movement of early musical instruction.  I know I run the risk of upsetting those committed to particular schools of musical instruction thought, but I say this because I know of many children who have either quit or sat around waiting to quit until their parents and teachers backed off the traditional instruction.  These kids then started fussing around on their own with whatever resources they had at their disposal, learning songs they wanted to learn, making up songs of their own, and often eventually finding their way to mastery on a trail they blazed themselves. There is more than one way to learn a thing, and this is one way that can work for some.

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