Tag Archives: cognitive neuroscience

8×13 = 104

How do I know this?  It’s a picture I was asked to tack to a spot in my mind over and over until it stuck.  Now that three digit number lives on a skinny black platform right above 117 and right below 91.  If I had learned my 7’s 8’s and 9’s  this way, who knows where I’d be now?

9 Lines

I never got past my sixes in multiplication.  I couldn’t bear the tedium.  I had a way of counting on my fingers by pressing them imperceptibly against my scalp as I crouched over my work.  I was an excellent student, but secretly a math dum-dum. The thing with math skills is that if you’re reasonably competent in other areas, you can slide by with various crutches  – until you can’t.  For me, that point was freshman algebra, when math finally became interesting and I began failing.  I loved the introduction of letters, the symmetry of equations, the process of simplifying.  I understood the concepts but I got too many details wrong.  Since I didn’t know in my bones what 6 times 8 was, I couldn’t recognize when my calculations were going awry.  Jacob, always my equal in school shot past me to Physics and pre-Calculus.  I skipped off to France.

Not “getting” math didn’t ruin my chances for higher education. Writing got me through what I needed.  Also, our culture seems to expect most kids to do poorly in math, especially the girls.  But my math handicap did neatly remove the possibility of pursuing anything outside the arts.  I bring my own experience up only to highlight the conflict in our culture and the absence of a strategy in our educational system.  Certainly our standards have been raised since I went to an infamously failing public school system thirty years ago.  But the strategies for meeting those standards are missing.  Especially when it comes to math.

As every parent of a third grader knows, though the teaching of concepts happens at school, the sweat and struggle involved in memorizing the multiplication facts is left to the parents.  And last I checked, we are not the most qualified bunch of number drillers.

I tried everything with my son: flashcards (store-bought and handmade), beans, songs, dances, games, bribes, star charts, computer programs, verbal drilling, all resulting in good old fashioned sighs of disappointment and frustration.  I was grasping and failing.  By third grade we knew our son had a learning disability, further complicating matters.  His processing is slower than typical kids, his working memory is challenged, but otherwise we don’t have a “diagnosis” of his difficulty.  And it’s not like he was left to his own devices.  His teacher had him pulled out for one on one instruction in math since the class was on entirely different material.  His tutor was devoted, creative, resourceful.  But after a year of this attentive instruction, he was stuck in a loop of forgetting.  He’s in the fifth grade still doing 2nd grade work.

I began to ask what, beyond re-mediating, could be done for his math?  What is out there to help kids who don’t get numbers?  I asked every therapist, teacher, and special education person I could find.  No one had an answer, beyond IXL or Khan Academy (yes, I know of these) How we learn math, it turns out, is little understood.  In a follow-up meeting with the head of special education curriculum for our district, I was told “Math just hasn’t been a priority in the past ten years.”

Returning to the image in my brain of a house with nine rooms where 13, 26, 39, 52, 65, 78, 91, 104, 117 live, I have found the answer.  David Berg, Ed. has developed powerful math pedagogy that has the potential to reach every kind of math learner.  Instead of creating a curriculum, he started the Making Math Real Institute where he and Michael Curry, his associate director, teach teachers, resource specialists, and thankfully, parents, how to teach math.  The strategy I learned for memorizing times facts is just one aspect of the program, but an important one, called “Nine Lines.”  As with every part of Making Math Real, it’s based on sound cognitive neuroscience research about brain functioning.  It reminds me of the “Memory Palace” technique used in Ancient Greece.  I will not attempt to address the science of Making Math Real in this post, but essentially, Nine Lines optimizes our ability to “image” information in a specific location.

I tried out the technique on my two daughters, both pretty typical learners, and they got it.  Now my fourth grade daughter asks for more every few days as she ratchets through her times facts.  She feels empowered, she tells me.  She’s learned a way to remember.  Then I tried it on my son.  He made more mistakes than the girls did, but he too found the images of the numbers were fixed where we had tacked them in his brain.  Most importantly, he enjoyed the exercise.  He felt smart in a way he rarely does.

The different brain (disabled, slow, fast, injured, genius) is a good place to learn about the typical brain.  I have learned so much more about my typical self and my typical kids from the therapists, special ed teachers who have worked with our special needs son.  Because, of course, none of us fit quite perfectly into the system.  I have found something that is going to give my son the best chance of re-joining his classroom by middle school and doing what he wants in life.  And I am confident this approach will give my daughters a different outlook on their own intelligence as well.  Face it, math skills are at the root of what we all call, “smartness.”  And our country ranks 25th in the world for math.  Arne Duncan should know David Berg.

Meltdown Mountain

Why do kids hate to hike?

Mt. Konocti

Mt. Konocti

To see the world in a grain of sand,
and to see heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hands,
and eternity in an hour.
– William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

I recently re-read the book The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl, in which the child’s brain is celebrated as a source and agent of wonder.  The authors reference the Romantic poet William Blake who spent his career trying to regain that naïve curiosity. I do not disagree with their central thesis about the importance of studying brain development.  But faced with the constant experience of my own children, romantic notions of childhood are replaced with frustrating reality.  The young brain may be designed to learn, but not necessarily to care.

I was a reluctant Girl Scout. I found hiking hurt and it bored me. I went along when the activity was foisted upon me, but as a city kid this was thankfully rare.  If I made it to the top of a mountain on a hot, sweaty hike,  all that mattered  was that I could eat my soggy sandwich and return home faster than we came, toes shoving into the tips of my shoes in the hasty path down. The view, to me, was mockery in its yawning stillness – the great anti-climax.

This Christmas, since the kids are of a certain durable age – too old for piggy backs, too young to stay home, we decided to push their endurance and climb Mt. Konocti, a 4,000 foot volcano above Clear Lake in Northern California. We’ve gone on more physically rigorous excursions than this, but for some reason, none so emotionally brutal.

They say the air in Lake County is the cleanest in the country and on a still, cold day, I believe it. The winter chill seems to give increasing clarity with every blink. Though my husband and I felt beckoned by the mountain this afternoon, the kids were moaning their refusal, appreciating nothing but their despair even before we set out. I wondered aloud why the kids were so afflicted by this activity, and to myself, why were we afflicting ourselves with the struggle. Why bring the kids along at all?

I sleep better, I think better when I run on a trail rather than a treadmill. The Japanese have a word for the practice of “bathing in forest air”: shinrin-yoku. A fair amount of research supports this sentiment, particularly for improving executive function, and especially in developing brains (see The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature). So dragging the children along, like forcing the issue of salad with dinner, may sully your peaceful moment, but the struggle has value.

Until this trip I blamed my own childhood allergy to hiking on poor fitness and Depression era parents. They made us walk and city bus it everywhere but there was never an excursion into nature for the sake of it. Leisure time was foreign terminology, like disposable income.

Our kids have grown up differently. They are all sun-drenched, water-soaked Californian, and sufficiently active. Still, there was complaining, yelling, stumbling, reversing, even some rock throwing as we tried to get them up this not very steep mountain. The poor behavior can be blamed in part on the fact that my modern, well-fed children have never seen true hardship (if we had needed to cross the mountain, this would have been a different scene). Still, their fundamental lack of appreciation for the experience was confounding. I was reflective, they were agitated.

We carried on like this, slowly tumbling upward, the day darkening with each bend in the path. And finally, by leaving a couple of children floundering in their misery just in the wake of the peak, we reached the top. And there it was: the view. It was spectacular. We nudged each child over the last hump of difficulty so they could see the full moon, impossibly pink and huge, hovering above the horizon. At our backs, the sun set as its mirror image dressed in orange while the trees  just below us were lit like polished copper. I don’t remember what I exclaimed, but my nine year old rolled her eyes and sighed, “I don’t get why grown ups always have to say how beautiful everything is.” The others murmured agreement.

I’m a photographer. Light is my medium and I watch it wherever I go. And this was the most fantastic display of natural light I had ever seen. Yet to them it was as boring and pointless as the views I had dismissed as a Girl Scout.

Why was my perception as an adult so different? Is this beauty so commonplace to them as Californians that it does not strike them?  Their school (Waldorf methods) teaches reverence from preschool onward. Was this effort backfiring? Or do children of this middle childhood age really not see meaning, beauty, significance like adults?

The child’s entire being is tuned to the future. Their hormones are dedicated to growth, their neural connections are being constantly sculpted in the profoundly active process of learning. Gopnik, Metlzoff, and Kuhl say “The most interesting thing about [babies] is their infinite capacity for wonder.”  But after the brief toddler years (the last time I can remember my children in rapture over a bug or flower) where does that wonder go?  I’m not suggesting children have lost this capacity because of technology or modern life, but that we are looking at it incorrectly.  A child stopping to review the day or a moment is putting a machine on pause for no purpose.  They are all absorption and no reflection.

Now that scientists have the ability to see the living brain through MRI’s, we know, literally, the color of our differences. As our brains develop, grey matter turns white. This is due to the development of a fatty layer around the neurons called the myelin sheath, which doesn’t completely develop in the frontal lobe until our mid-twenties. This coating allows for quicker neural conductivity across longer, broader regions of the brain. It provides for better decision making and stronger impulse control. Actions and consequences are connected by a superhighway in the mature brain. But in the young brain, that super highway hasn’t been built – it’s a tangle of city streets. The sheath aids in drawing connections between concepts, and as more myelin is laid down over the years, it contributes to what we call the “wisdom” of elders. But the paucity of myelin is part of what gives kids that endearing (or maddening) randomness about them.

I have a friend in the design world, John Bielenberg, who celebrates the unmyelinated brain. He believes it makes better designers because the younger set do the wacky and the risky better without the stabilizing influence of mature thinking. He has developed a program called Project M where he brings recent college graduates together to engage in design ventures for the greater good. He says that because they lack all the white matter he has, his young cohorts are better at “thinking wrong” and coming up with more innovative, world-changing designs. The elders, on the other hand, are simply maintaining life, regurgitating ideas, and following well-worn paths.

Maybe it is the white stuff in John’s brain that makes him the old dog unable to generate the creative storms like PieLab and Common Hoops, both of Project M. But it is that same old dog who came up with the idea of bringing these young, un-myelinated brains to the table. If the young are the seeds of Project M, John is the seed-bed. His old brain provides the infrastructure for this project to exist. Focusing on myelin alone in brain development is an oversimplification of a profoundly complex process. But it highlights one important physiological aspect for how we are different beings from our children.

As I stand looking out over the hills of Lake County, I’m bringing together everything I know to regard that moment. The stillness of the rock, trees, and dirt allows my brain to work more efficiently. And despite the family struggles at my feet, I am calm. I am thinking of winters in my childhood, colors in my palette, geography I have seen and read about. My old, white brain drags their young, grey brains here because I know what’s good for them until they do.

I would argue that although I am far more cynical than my 8, 9, and 11 year-old combined, it is the adult brain that has greater capacity for awe.  Children learn without trying and should be given every opportunity to do so.  But next time one of them rolls their eyes as I smell the forest air, I’ll try to remember it doesn’t matter.   It is easy for me to forget how vastly different their minds are from ours. Not because their experiences are different from mine, but because they are simply children, headed forward, not yet looking back.