Just kidding

Andrea* looks down at the algebra problem she’s working through and notices that she’s assigned a value of five, rather than six, to three twos. As she erases the five and replaces it with a six, she says “Just kidding.” We both smile. Then she continues with the rest of the problem.

This is a simple but brilliant little practice of hers.  Math can be so charged, and the prospect of making a mistake in math inspires fear and trepidation throughout the land.  If a young person can relate to miscalculation as an opportunity to pretend they’ve made a little joke, they’ve got at least one way to keep perspective.

So many of the kids I work with have learned to tense up and start defending themselves when they can’t remember something or when they mix things up.  Their eyes dart up to see how I’ll react, and before I even have a chance to, they start spinning their talking wheels – “Oh, I thought we were supposed to do plus, not times… My teacher said… When we did it in class… This is so confusing…” Or they just give up all together and tell me they can’t do it.  Usually over something as small as five, instead of six, for two times three.  These kids have received the message that if you don’t get every bit of it right every time, especially the single-digit stuff, then you might as well hang up your math cleats and plan on a route that doesn’t include any numbers.  They expect to be judged on their ability to achieve computational perfection.

Andrea figured out, in time, that it’s possible to miscalculate, even often, and still excel as a math student.  And that if she keeps her sense of humor about her, she can keep her head in the game.

I’ve started telling the younger kids I know, especially those who get skittish when they mix up six and five (or write a seven open to the right instead of left), about Andrea’s just kiddings.  I’ll say something like “One of the teenagers I know, when she makes a little mistake like that, always says ‘Just kidding.’ She’s not saying that to really pretend she meant to do it, she’s saying it because it’s funny to pretend she meant to do it.  I think she does it to remind herself that making a little mistake is no big deal and if she makes a little joke about it, the mistake doesn’t distract her from the real thinking she’s trying to do.”

A couple of them have tried it, and with noticeable results.  It interrupts the habit of panic and doubt, creates a space for relaxation and ease.  And there’s nothing like a little calm to free up the mind for math.

*Not her actual name.

This is your brain on exercise

Not just energized, but actually brighter. I’m reading John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  Parts of it are technical, but even just the first (less technical) section sheds some astonishing light on the relationship between movement and learning.

Here’s my quick summary of the content: exercise makes the brain work better.  The implications of what Ratey describes are huge – the potential for exercise to prime the brain for optimal learning and to balance its chemicals such that the likes of anxiety and depression can actually lose their grip on a person.  The research suggests that the key to solving the childhood obesity problem could also get us back on track with math and science – instead of increasing academic instructional time in kids’ days, we’d increase physical activity.  This could make for contentious discussion at the dinner table on Pennsylvania Avenue…

Kids already know this, of course, which is why when you ask many a child what their favorite part of the day is, they say recess.  It’s not because they’re lazy and they don’t feel like studying (though in many cases their classes probably are boring and so it’d be hard to blame them if they didn’t).  It’s because they know they need lots and lots of motion.  Who knows what might become possible if we let them have it.

Rest for the memory

I just read a quotation from Lucinda Williams saying that sometimes she keeps her song lyrics with her onstage when she’s performing – even songs she’s been performing for a very long time.  She first says she’s lazy, but then goes on to say that keeping the lyrics on hand means she can concentrate on singing, not on remembering.

Exercise for the brain…

Solitaire has acquired the reputation for being a popular way to waste time in an office job.  It certainly can be that, but it’s also an opportunity for building mental agility and acuity.  It can also be very meditative, fun, and otherwise great, for some.  For others, it’s terrifically boring.

If you happen to know a young person who might fall into that some category, here’s a book I came across today. It looks good – the explanations appear to be clear, and the illustrations, sharp and fun to look at…

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? Continue reading

More than one way to read

There’s more than one way to learn to read.  Actually what I mean is that there’s more than one way to read.  I think we’re pretty clear that there’s more than one way to learn.  But people actually read differently.  Some never get the hang of sounding out, for example.  Sylvia Ashton-Warner built a whole system of literacy teaching around choice and recognition of words.  Here’s a link to a post with an excerpt from her book Teacher as well as a lengthy bio.  The book is worth reading for anyone interested in learning of any kind for any reason.  Another related resource is Katie Johnson’s book Doing Words which describes the method she developed based on Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s work.

From Teacher: “Organic reading for beginners is not new; it’s our rejection of it that’s new.”


…makes the heart grow fonder, or so they say.  It can also make the plants seem like they’re growing faster, if you leave at the right time of year and the weather cooperates.

.img_2201 … and 11 days later…   img_2309

Things can happen when/because you’re not micromanaging them.  My elation at the size of the plants upon my recent reminded me of that, along with something I heard on Radiolab some time ago.  The episode was about sleep, and in one of the segments,  Guilio Tononi, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Madison, talks about practicing and practicing and practicing a piece of music and never quite getting it right, until enlisting sleep as a learning tool, or maybe a learning catalyst.  He wakes up and the music is there, ready to play flawlessly.

It’s worth remembering, I think, that sometimes things happen when one is not hard at work at something. The brain’s working all the time, fussing around with what we’ve been doing, what we are doing, what we’re about to do, and it’s a lot easier to think that learning something is a simple cause and effect process that happens predictably and reliably with time and effort commensurate with the time spent.  It’s so much more complicated.  What might the implications be?

Have a listen to the Radiolab episode if you’re interested in the sleep stuff, and/or how it helps with learning.

Finger Memory?

I was trying out a typing program the other day and noticed that I had a lot of trouble typing series of letters that didn’t fit the patterns of English. I could fairly easily type something like daf, which followed an expectable consonant-vowel-consonant pattern, but I had trouble with the likes of fja. I’d consistently hit the a first, even when I knew perfectly well it was time for the j.  My left pinky was heading for it before I had a conscious opportunity to hold it back until I’d make it to the j.

I know perfectly well that the brain is capable of this sort of thing, but it never ceases to amaze me.

Next time you’re tempted to say “stop doodling and pay attention”…

Yet another suggestion that things are not always as they seem. This reminds me of how many folks I’ve heard say that they can only focus on what someone’s saying if they don’t make eye contact, though we tend to assume it’s the opposite. Take a look at this summary of a study (published earlier this year in Applied Cognitive Psychology) about the effect of doodling on recall.