Sunday, March 23, 2008

Training our Brains 

For decades I've used the phrase, "Train your brain" to encourage my students and others to learn more. Our nation has lived through 37+ years of telling kids that memorizing dates, facts, languages, etc. really isn't necessary. I use a times table fact test in my college Management Information Systems class. Students who were made to learn the facts do well, the "feel good" only group does not. Poorly performing students usually have to work harder. In my latest class a key reason to learn basic data was driven home.

The night's topic covered the more abstract computer software programs: neural networks, fuzzy logic, artificial intelligence, expert systems, etc. These areas of software development attempt and often succeed in producing products that think and move like humans - imagine robots.

What drove home the incredibly amazing function of the human brain (and my strong belief in the necessity of learning language symbols (alphabets and sounds), math facts, historical dates, geographical features, religious basics, etc.) was this article discussing the chess competitions between the world's greatest chess players and computers. The computer was processing 200,000,000 moves per second, a phenomenal capability. The computer doesn't "consciously" do the calculation. It is programmed to quickly assess a chess situation, "review" data and decide which move to make. Our human brains work much the same way.

The reason we must teach basic facts is this: a fact once learned is in the brain forever. The brain uses the facts it possesses automatically. When cultures developed written symbols for speech, they made rapid advances, therefore we must teach children written symbols to survive today. After memorizing the fact, 7 x 6 = 42, we rarely consciously calculate it but our brain uses that fact millions of time during our lives, naturally. When we commit to memory rivers, imports, exports, mountain ranges, belief systems, major cities, etc. we become able to picture where an event occurs - the necessary associations and correlations simply "appear."

Our brains are our mobile computers. Think of your brain as a muscle. If it is not exercised, it will atrophy. As a species and member of various groups on this planet, we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to make sure our children learn the symbols, math and geographic facts, balanced history, and yes, a foreign language. Only then, after discovering the world of information and committing basics to memory will they really succeed, which in turn gives them real self-confidence.

We deny children life when we make learning only about "feeling good" for one cannot give someone self-esteem - it must be earned and fact learning is the foundation. To really think, to draw conclusions, to understand who and what we and others are results in self-confidence and better decisions. Children know when they don't know. They may not be able to express the frustration but they know. And when they learn, they know they know - they get excited about learning more. My college students who do not know basic multiplication tables are at a disadvantage - because they know they don't know what they intuitively know they should know. This self-awareness eats away at their confidence just as it does with other students. It is time to demand knowledge of basics.