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Mental mathematical muscle memory

I’m reading Robert Green’s book Mastery, which includes case studies (from Martha Graham to Michael Faraday to Benjamin Franklin) on attaining mastery.  Where Malcolm Gladwell took an academic/journalistic approach to a similar subject in his excellent book Outliers, in Mastery Green takes a deeper dive, highlighting traits to emulate.

One passage resonated with me as I reflect on the discipline (and eventually, I hope, the passion) that I’m trying to instill in my kids as they develop first and third-grade math skills…

…the initial stages of learning a skill invariably involve tedium.  Yet rather than avoiding this inevitable tedium, you must accept and embrace it.  The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise.  Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents – will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction?  Much as with physical exercise, you can even get a kind of perverse pleasure out of this pain, knowing the benefits it will bring you.  In any event, you must meet any boredom head-on and not try to avoid or repress it.  Throughout your life you will encounter tedious situations, and you must cultivate the ability to handle them with discipline.

It’s easy to dislike the testing-heavy curriculum that is proliferating in our educational system.  But early repetition builds mastery of the basic skills that will allow kids to lean into the higher mathematical concepts that’ll be exposed to later on.  An eight-year-old can wrestle pretty successfully with this repetition if she’s been doing it as long as she can remember.  And the every now and then we both get an enjoyable payoff when she grasps a new concept building on the foundational skills that have become second nature.  Kids are more resilient that we realize – setting expectations high pays off.

About C. Smith

Technology manager. Dad.

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