Thursday, February 22, 2007

How To Sap Your Brain and Reduce Your Computational Abilities

Simply take a subject like math that is ingrained in everyday life, something you can't help but do if you live, something the simplest humans have been doing for millennia: counting their bushels of wheat, subtracting the number of goats they sold to their neighbor, calculating the footing of a gigantic stone pyramid; take that subject and make it so abstract and abstruse that it's barely comprehensible, then test people on their timed, immediate recall of those abstracted facts and figures and voila! You have created a monster. It's name: math anxiety.

A new study has shown that "Math anxiety -- feelings of dread and fear and avoiding math -- can sap the brain's limited amount of working capacity, a resource needed to compute difficult math problems." Apparently math anxiety (a completely school-generated construct) actually occupies space in a person's working memory, space that could be put to better uses such as, well, actually thinking and calculating and remembering things.

Fortunately, there's a simple and effective solution out there: don't abstract math out of its very real and immediate usefulness in everyday life. Don't make it a "subject" to be dissected, timed, tested, and ultimately feared at such a young age. Let math be joyous and freewheeling. Let it be measuring cups of flour if you double the recipe and calculating how much time it will take to save up for that treasured toy, figuring how high to make a treehouse and how many boards it will take to build it. Let it be how soon we'll get to grandma's house if it's one hundred miles and we're going sixty miles and hour, or how many more days it is until Christmas, how to divide three pumpkin pies among fifteen guests, or the octaves it takes to sing Oh Holy Night.

There will be plenty of time for abstracted math, for math in its purest forms for those who wish to pursue it (or for those whose chosen paths in life require a greater amount of mathematical knowledge). There will be time for piR2 and 3x+14y=z, for vectors and functions and geometries. When that time comes, it can be met joyously in the knowledge that math is something that intertwines among the fabric of life, in music and art and buildings and food; something elemental and of a precise beauty, not something abstract to be feared and detested.

In the meantime, I'm off to bake some cookies. A double recipe.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

How They Learn

One of the concerns people always voice about unschooling is how kids will learn if they don't have someone hovering over them making sure they do so. I thought I'd write about just one (of the many, many, many) things I see my kids doing that illustrates how they learn. My daughter loves music and the violin is her main instrument, but she often sits down at the piano to pick things out or to play around. She's never had formal piano lessons, but the other day a friend taught her how to play part of a song that takes both hands. After her friend left, she sat down and tried to remember it. I noticed that she kept playing one part over and over, pausing each time. When I came into the living room, I saw that she was using her little magnadoodle pad to write down the note names (you can see my handy dandy note stickers on all the keys - anathema to most "real" piano teachers I'm sure, but my kids asked for them and use them frequently.) After that, she played it over and over until she had it down.

This morning, she noticed that the song on her Barbie toy cell phone is one by Beethoven that she has on a LeapPad game. She sat down at the piano to sound it out, and was still engaged in that when it was time to leave for Karate. Now that we're home, she's at it again and I can hear the stanzas of the Ode to Joy emerging from her fingertips.

When a child wants to learn something (or an adult for that matter), the most useful thing we can do is to support and nurture that desire. Provide the materials and encouragement, step back and watch the magic happen.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ticket to Egypt

When I was a kid, the King Tut exhibit was all the rage. Steve Martin had a hit single about the boy king, women wore shirts with Tuts over each tit, and the lines for the traveling exhibit went around the block. I was lucky enough that my folks to us to see it in San Francisco. I remember the lines, the anticipation and the awe of standing next to an item that once graced the tomb of a Pharoah, thousands of years ago.

Now the Portland Art Museum has the largest exhibit of Egyptian artifacts ever to leave the country. The tickets are selling out quickly, and I'm hoping to get some for next weekend. I'll be hitting the library tomorrow to get some books on Egypt. We've read plenty over the years, but none in the last few months. I can't wait to see the same look of excitement on the kids' faces that I remember feeling all those years ago. If all goes well, we'll meet my sister there and not only get to see all of these amazing exhibits but also get to celebrate her birthday. Fun!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Biology is Destiny?

When I was a mother-to-be, I had all kinds of high hopes for raising my kids free from gender stereotypes that are so endemic in our culture. My husband is the only one in our family who sews, and he cooks a mean lasagna or crock pot chicken; I own two motorcycles, my pilot's license, and can turn a wrench when I need to, it seems that it would be pretty straightforward to raise children who had no preconceived notions of what men and women would do.

That was before I gave birth to a boy, then a girl. In the early years, we didn't even have a television. They probably watched fewer commercials (you know, the ones with girls playing with dolls and boys zooming trucks around) than any American children on the planet. They had us as role models. They both had access to dolls, Thomas the Tank Engine trains, stuffed animals and superheroes. They would not be trained into any roles by us, that's for sure.

My first inkling that something was dramatically different between the two of them came one day when they were both playing with some plastic Spiderman action figures. M, our son (then six years old), had them flying around involved in some epic battle, complete with sound effects. Whenever he would hand one to our daughter A., then three, she would take them over to the doll house, tuck them into bed, and sing them a lullabye.

Later, I noticed that when M. played with Thomas the Tank Engine, he built elaborate layouts and drove the trains around for hours on end. The same train tracks and trains were passed down to A. but she invented little stories and interactions between the trains and rarely touched the tracks. Frustrations sometimes arose when they tried to play together. M. wanted someone to drive trains with, while A. wanted complex interpersonal character interactions.

As the years have passed, they've found places where their interests intersect. They've come to understand that compromise might be necessary when they play together. Sometimes I will overhear an interaction like this:
M: Do you want to play an imaginary game?
A: Sure. I'm a princess!
M: No, no princesses please!
A: Okay, how about a cute fluffy doggy?
M: Aaaaaarrggh (eye rolling here) Okay, but sometimes you're fierce
A: Okay

Yesterday they each had a friend over to play and my final reservations about biology and destiny flew out the window. The boys immediately dragged the Lincoln Logs and toy soldiers down to the living room and set about building forts. The girls took turns borrowing each others' clothes and dressing up as dancers. The gender differences couldn't be more obvious.

Now that's not to say that they will grow up stereotyped into some roles. Both of the kids know how to cook, and A. is the one who says she wants to ride my motorcycles some day. They are both sensitive and kind, and neither is afraid to show their emotions or give us hugs. But I have learned to honor that in their basic approaches to life, they come from different directions, and that's okay.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Child's Play

We've been really into games lately. Sometimes the kids play things on their own, sometimes with each other or with friends, sometimes with us on a family game night.

It occured to me that if you did nothing but just play games all day, you could probably learn just about everything you needed to know. There are games for logic and deductive reasoning (Mastermind, Rush Hour, and Clue are big hits here, and little Miss A. doesn't go anywhere without her Sudoku Addict book of puzzles), games that emphasize math skills (one family game of Monopoly gives you addition through multiplication plus percentages and fractions), most video games require reading and puzzle solving, there are trivia games full of history and Pit for market trading, puzzles and Operation for small-muscle dexterity, and there are physical games like Simon Says, Mother May I, and dodgeball that work reflexes and mind-body connections.

The game I love to hear the most is when the kids, either with each other or with a group of friends, start playing what they call "The Imaginary Game", an ongoing storyline set in some place and time of fantasy. Sometimes they play it in the car or sitting on the couch, sometimes its a big group of kids roaming through the woods or fields or at a playground. It's always changing and ever-fascinating.

The value of play is highly underestimated in our society. The phrase "Child's Play" connotes something easy or trivial, yet it is anything but. Children learn by playing, but more importantly play brings their lives meaning and joy. Now excuse me, I think I hear Sudoku puzzle calling my name...

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Indentured Servants

I took the kids down to our local gaming store this week and they each found a game that they really liked. A. saw some hamster game for the DS that's like Nintendogs, but with hamsters (how much more perfect could that be!) and M. got Rocket Slime which is pretty cool. I actually bought Brain Gym for myself, and got hooked on Sudoku for the first time!

Unfortunately, they had forgotten they made a date with some other friends to go to the store they just refer to as the "individual card store", which is a local gaming place that sells used Pokemon, Yu Gi Oh, Magic, etc. cards invidually. Although they both got rid of their Pokemon decks awhile ago, they've since discovered that some of their friends that are back into it, and decided to buy new decks. Only after blowing all of their money on the video games there was a slight problem of funding.... that's where The Bank of Mom comes in.

I have a huge leaf pile standing on the spot where I want my summer garden to be. Now this enormous pile is courtesy of my dear hubby, who decided that if getting a couple of loads of leaves dumped there each year (from our city's leaf pickup program) was good, then getting ten dumptruck loads would be Even Better. I'm sorry to be sexist, but is this typical man thinking or what??. Yes, ten dumptruck loads of leaves are currently residing on top of my garden spot. I'm thinking that your average rototiller is not going to cut through this 20x 15 x 7 foot tall pile! Plus, we have 1/3 acre of ivy and blackberries that I want to rake the leaves over to hopefully make them easier to pull out of there.

I've been plugging away at the pile with shovel, rake and wheelbarrow, and can use all the help I can get. So I offered the kids $5 an hour and they jumped at the chance to be able to get their Pokemon cards. They were jumping a little less enthusiastically when they started raking and shoveling, but they worked for an hour as troopers and only have half their debt left.