Exercising the brain

By Legal Eagle

Given that a recent comment thread on Germaine Greer turned into a discussion of dyslexia and learning difficulties, I thought I might start off a direct discussion of learning difficulties in a post. I just read a book called The Brain that Changes Itself, which discusses neuroplasticity and the capacity of the brain to change. It had a number of interesting chapters on methods of counteracting learning difficulties and dyslexia. It seems that people can undergo brain exercises which teach their brains to operate differently. 

Neuroplasticity doesn’t surprise me at all. I know from my own experience that the brain is capable of compensating for and getting around problems. I have coping strategies for my own lack of balance and coordination problems with my lower legs. Not perfect, but pretty damn good (if I do say so myself).

Anyway, I thought I might take a controversial excerpt from the book, and open it up for discussion:

The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that children’s brains had to be built up through exercises of increasing difficulty that strengthened brain functions. Up through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a classical education often included rote memorization of long poems in foreign languages, which strengthened the auditory memory (hence thinking in language) and an almost fanatical attention to handwriting, which probably helped strengthen motor capacities and thus not only helped handwriting but added speed and fluency to reading and speaking. Often a great deal of attention was paid to exact elocution and to perfecting the pronounciation of words. Then in the 1960s educators dropped such traditional exercises from the curriculum, because they were too rigid, boring, and “not relevant.” But the loss of these drills has been costly; they may have been the only opportunity that many students had to systematically exercise the brain function that gives us fluency and grace with symbols.

Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself (2007), pgs 41 – 42

Do we need to rethink our educative strategies? Certainly, in my home state of Victoria, primary school has moved decisively away from rote learning, drill exercises and the like. I never learned my times tables and consequently, my basic arithmetic is appalling, although my algebra is quite good. Should we reintroduce some rote learning on the basis that it may overcome learning difficulties for some students?

Instead, there is a lot of emphasis on making topics relevant and teaching by “real life examples”. I’ve already written a post on how a study has shown this may not always work with something like maths. I think it’s definitely a good thing to say why learning a particular principle is useful in real life, but it’s probably better to establish the abstract principle in students’ minds first before you start applying it to practical situations. Certainly, that’s the approach I take with law: teach the principle, then give the students at least one factual scenario to show how it might apply in real life.

As someone who has experienced both modern Australian education and old-fashioned British education, I tend to think some mixture of the two is the best. If there is too much emphasis on rote-learning, this means that people may not actually understand what they are learning, or they may not be willing to think outside the square. But if you don’t give people the mental “straw” with which to construct their “bricks” of thought, then the ideas which they develop are not very useful. I found that my Australian education had allowed me to think more laterally and creatively, but that I often did not have a sound basis in fundamental principles, or that my knowledge was somewhat “patchy.” My British education supplied the fundamental principles for me. I suspect also that the horrible rote learning of dates, formulae and principles was also really helpful for my cognitive development. Yes, it was boring, but once I had gotten it into my noggin, then I found that I could do all kinds of things.

Of course, I’m no expert on these matters, just someone who has experienced two education systems. Furthermore, I have to instinctively figure out the best way of getting dry legal principles to stick in people’s brains. But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


Sometimes I think I’m psychic. I write about something, and then I see a press article dealing with the subject a day later… Anyway, it’s happened again. Research involving indigenous children in remote areas has suggested that there is an innate mathematical ability, because these children can count even though their language does not have numbers in the same sense that many other languages do. Therefore, mathematical concepts do not depend on language, in contrast to what is commonly supposed.

There is then a discussion of dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia, and suggestions that the teaching of maths needs to be changed to focus more on basic concepts. I actually suspect I’ve got dyscalculia – although I can add up in my head, I’m slow and have to talk out aloud, and I have a tendency to mix up the order of numbers. It was terribly bad when I was a banking litigator. Once I mixed up a payout figure – it was after this that I developed an Excel spreadsheet and triple checked it before doing any calculations. It also makes numerical PINs difficult for me – I tend to have to develop a little rhyme to remember them. So if you see a crazy muttering woman in front of you at the ATM, it might be me.


  1. Posted August 18, 2008 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Yes, look for the methods that work which will almost certainly involve a judicious mix of “old” and “progressive” methods. It is infuriating the way the debate gets diverted into false alternatives, as though it has to be all the old rote learning or all fun and trendy gimmicks.
    Learn the tables and learn the old songs and passages of poetry as well. It will pay off down the track, as Clive James discovered in middle age lwhen he realised how much poetry he had taken on board at school even though he did not enjoy it or appreciate it at the time.

  2. conrad
    Posted August 19, 2008 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    One of the problems is that it’s often very hard to know exactly why every little thing you are teaching helps. A good example here is all the rote learning kids should do in mathematics that obviously you didn’t! All that stuff helps kids learn about inequalities and do spatial tasks. It also means that when they do more complex tasks that are based on these, they don’t expend any memory/attention resources on elementary aspects of the tasks (hence making the harder tasks much easier). Try explaining that to teachers or the general public, many of whom also can’t do some of these tasks themselves because they were taught poorly, and because it’s easy to find example of kids not taught that sort of stuff that can do these tasks anyway. A good example of this in real life is that many people can’t read graphs well anymore. If you are taught well, simple graphs should take almost no effort at all to understand, but heaps of people have problems with them (really — you can test it out on your first years — it is also why simple graphs are in many employee selection tests now, such as the public service one).

    Another problem is that you often get conflicting evidence when there are alternatives which then gets hijacked and turned into a political debate (the educational equivalent of AGW). The obvious example is the phonics (i.e., learning to use and manipulate the smallest sounds of your language) versus whole-word teaching strategy for early reading. We knew phonics was the way to go decades ago, since the 30-40% of people who otherwise would have ended up as slow readers and poor spellers get massively better outcomes — but it took decades for the government to recognize this, and many teachers are still against it (quite possibly because they were never taught the sounds of the language themselves, and hence can’t use them either). Again, it’s surprising how overwhelming evidence for various things is ignored or discarded with poor arguments (my son reads fine but didn’t ever get taught phonics so who needs it……)

  3. John Greenfield
    Posted August 19, 2008 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    When I returned to uni as a dreaded mature age student, I took the Normal Level of 1st Year Maths. As you can imagine it was quite a shock, having not done any Calculus level Maths for hundreds of years. The first few weeks were like hard, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how quickly I was integrating by parts by inspection, flipping vectors from 2 to 32 dimenions and back again, etc.

    Clearly all the hundreds/thousands of examples I did in HSC Maths had mowed a permanent Maths lawn in my cerebral nether regions that just needed a bit of a clip and a jolly good watering.

    I was chatting to one of the lecturers who told me that even at Advanced university level, the only way to get above a Credit in Maths is to practice endless examples. He said even the people who get 200/200 in 4 Unit Maths, win medals at maths Olympiads, and get 1st Class Honours work their tails off and do every single example in the tute problem book!

    I have found the visuo-spatial reasoning practice, probabilty/stats and algebraic proofs to contain significant spillover effects onto other disciplines such as History.

    I am currently tutoring a Year 9 girl in Maths, who is coming about 15th in the top class. I have guaranteed her she will come in the top 3 by the end of the year. But she won’t be spending much time outdoors! 🙂

  4. A. Atomou
    Posted August 19, 2008 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    There’s rote learning and then there’s interest in what one is learning. I am a retired teacher. For many years I taught in a school that one might classify as “tough,” an adjective which will have to suffice for now, lest the discussion become too navigatory. Anyhow, I was given a class of “very difficult students,” (this nomenclature will also stand unqualified for now) and was told that I could do what I liked with them.
    Having been brought up in Greece, I was very knowledgeable in Greek mythology and had loved it all my life. I decided to simply stand in front of the class and tell one Greek myth after another. Anyone who knows anything about Greek mythology knows that the stories never end! It’s how I used to put my two sons to bed. They wouldn’t shut their eyes until I went to their bedside and told them a story -every night, for many years.
    Now, the surprising thing about this exercise in the classroom was that during every period I’d fill the blackboard (it was back then) with the names of the protagonists of the myths. Many names, huge names, difficult to read and pronounce names, names that I thought would also be difficult to remember: Agamemnon, Menelaos, Klytaimestra, Iphigeneia, Priam, Hekate, Hakabe… you get the idea. Many, many such names.
    But I was very pleasantly surprised to have the students come to me during recess or lunchtime or at times outside of the school, even months later and ask me questions or talk to me about those myths AND not only remember the very complex stories and tangled plots but also every name that the story comprised! How did they do that?
    My sons, too, will quite frequently refer to those myths and remember them quite clearly and in detail and even to their surprise, they have still not forgotten those difficult-to-remember names!
    The students in those classes hardly ever came with any writing material -more likely, they’d be carrying a cricket bat or a footy, depending on the sporting season. They took no written notes but I always wrote on that blackboard all the names of people and places. I bet if you ask them even now -probably married with their own kids, they’d tell you why Achilles “chucked a spaz” at the beginning of the Iliad and what was his cousin’s name!

  5. Posted August 19, 2008 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    A few more random thoughts on the mental and the physical. Years ago I read about an Australian (presumably called Kephard) who developed an exercise called the Kephard board walk to improve balance as a part of speech therapy. (Google drew a blank).
    Some teacher at school said that exercising one side of the body stimulates the other side of the brain, so being right handed I put in some time on the farm doing left-handed shot putting wtih a rock. No idea if it helped but it was a very boring activity so it was probably character-building.

  6. Posted August 19, 2008 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    A.A: kids respond to stories, and if you tell them well, they’ll stick. You probably did more good with that class than lots of their other teachers ever did!

  7. Posted August 20, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    The modern idea of immutability came out of the existential premise that we are doomed to return to nothing. The ancients embraced the concept of maximizing our capabilities — hence the drills and training. Neither is wrong, per se, but we’ve lost sight of the potential for improving ourselves.

    The new evidence for neuroplasiticity reminds us that we can change who we are.

    For instance, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl’s study on Improving Fluid Intelligence by Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008) recorded increases in mental agility (fluid intelligence) of more than 40% in less than 20 days with the right kind of brain training.

    mind evolve, llc

  8. A. Atomou
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    “For instance, Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl’s study on Improving Fluid Intelligence by Training Working Memory (PNAS April 2008) recorded increases in mental agility (fluid intelligence) of more than 40% in less than 20 days with the right kind of brain training.”

    Gord, ‘elp us! More than 40% in less than 20 days! So, by this arithmetic… no my brain is stuffed trying to work out how much percent more agile will be by the end of the year! Or is that how much more fluid will be clunking in there?

    SL, the reason I talked about the myths I used to tell to my High School students was to show that the brain will remember better the things it’s interested in. I haven’t put that across well because I was in a bit of a rush. Bad excuse, I know. Anyhow, The reason I, myself, also remembered these stories is not because I was rote-learning them or even forced into learning them by anyone but because they were, to me very interesting, captivating, intriguing, engaging etc.
    I remember during my Uni years (here, in Oz) having to do the rote bit very often, just before tests and exams, particularly of ancient greek and latin conjugations. They helped but, strangely enough (and frustratingly enough) only until the exam was done with. A week later I’d remember very little and why? Because I was simply not interested, or captivated or intrigued or engaged by those conjugations.
    Every means of learning is effective if one has learnt by that means and is thus able to remember. The length of time that the info is retained is probably proportionate to the interest one has in that info. The more interested one is in something the longer it is likely to stay in one’s head.
    I doubt very much that my telling of those stories did justice to them but because they were so interesting, the students had no choice but to obey their brain!

  9. John Hasenkam
    Posted August 20, 2008 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Gord, ‘elp us! More than 40% in less than 20 days! S

    Too good to be true. There is an error in there.

  10. A. Atomou
    Posted August 21, 2008 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    LE, while we’re on the “funny thing happened to me on the way to court,” please let try to entertain with this little sketch. I was, in my distant previous life, a court interpreter. It was in the Family Court and the couple wanted a divorce.
    The short and obvious reason was that, they couldn’t stand each other but the obstacle that the husband couldn’t overcome in their life, was the fact that his wife “didn’t speak enough English.” The judge pointed out that he, too, the husband, was obviously lacking in that area – after all, why else did he have an interpreter (me) there? Without the slightest further thought, the husband turned to me and said, “tell the judge that she (the wife) has to do all the “official” stuff, fill documents, visit schools with the kids, take kids to the doctor…. I can’t do any of that stuff. I need someone who can.”
    I can’t remember the final outcome of that hearing but I do remember that silly reason the man gave for wanting a divorce.

  11. Posted August 21, 2008 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Clearly all the hundreds/thousands of examples I did in HSC Maths had mowed a permanent Maths lawn in my cerebral nether regions that just needed a bit of a clip and a jolly good watering.

    Now that is a lovely bit of vivid imagery. As in maths, so for anything else you want to be really good at – keep doing it over and over.

  12. Posted August 21, 2008 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Koreans still learn by rote. One of the things that’s interesting (and frustrating) about them is they have a limited capacity to deal with hypotheticals. I had a conversation once with this fellow about the Korean custom that demands that the first born son get married and produce children by his 30th birthday.

    As the first born son of my family and the only one of three who (thus far) doesn’t really want kids I found this a peculiarly inflexible rule. Especially considering that the stated purpose of the rule is to carry on the family name (seems like 90% of Koreans are either Kims or Parks).

    Anyway the conversation went like this:

    Me: Well what if the second son wanted to get married and have kids and the first one didn’t would it be okay then?

    Korean Guy: No. First son must get married, must have kids.

    Me: But just consider it hypothetically for a minute, what if…

    KG: No. First son must get married, must have kids.

    Me: But just say…

    KG: No. First son must get married, must have kids.


    I’ve had a few conversations with Koreans where I run into a wall like this. I play music with some of them. Excellent musicians – technically. Ask ’em to improvise? Fugedaboudit!

    Of course I’m not supporting new-gangled notion of teaching Romeo and Juliet as heterosexist propaganda or exploring the patro-capitalist hegemonies underpinning the logophallocentricities of the privilledges of light speed.

  13. Posted August 23, 2008 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    The Koreans are also quite creative. They’re near the top producers of patents in the world. I do remember however the argument between the American cop and the Japanese cop in Black Rain set in Tokyo.

    The Japanese cop is railing against American decadance: Now music and movies is all America is good for.

    American cop: Well if any of you people ever had an original idea you’re all so tight you couldn’t pull it out of your ass. 🙂

    Hanging in the bosom of Confuscious will drive a Westerner bonkers. It’s driven me bonkers in the past. hell it drives them bonkers.

  14. mathair
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Like legal eagle my interest has been stirred by the book The brain that changes itself. I was especially interested in what Norman Doidge has to say about rote learning. My son is in year 2 and learning his times tables at the moment and to my horror I’ve found they don’t learn by rote. While my son has mastered the 3 times table by week two, we’re now on week four and he’s still getting homework on his 3 times tables because, as he tells me, “not everyone else in the class knows them yet”. Simple answer, rote learning! I’ve been trying to teach him to sing them like we used to at school but it seems it’s a foreign concept in today’s teaching environment. Suffice to say, I agree that teaching the basics allows us to concentrate on the more intricate tasks at a later point in time.

  15. John Greenfield
    Posted September 10, 2008 at 2:44 pm | Permalink


    I read a post of yours a while ago where you said something like how bloody hard you worked at uni and on your writing.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, you said you fret over every word and revise, revise, revise. That was a bit of a wake up for me, as i NEVER revise or fret. Your example suggests that just as in Maths, University medals in Humanities require lots and lots of work and repetition, No?

  16. Posted September 10, 2008 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    There are now many studies pointing the way to enhancing cerebral function. Based on clinical trials I have tried two strategies and they both worked remarkably well. One was so effective that I had to stop it because I was heading towards trouble but I will be using it again. Based on some very recent research I have just started another strategy that will provide neuroprotection, enhanced concentration, and extra energy. Unfortunately it means two weeks of hell until the neurotransmitter and immune-endocrine balance settles down. In time I am going to combine these three strategies.

  17. Posted September 13, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    As a writer, I have always been frustrated by the modern system which tells kids to “just write – don’t worry about grammar, punctuation etc.” To me, words, grammar and punctuation are the tools a writer uses. Nobody would think of telling a would-be carpenter, “Just build something. Don’t worry about learning to use the tools first.” So why would you tell a would-be writer to not bother learning to use the tools first?

  18. Posted September 13, 2008 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    In literature the ambition of the novice is to acquire the literary language; the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.

    George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)
    Anglo-Irish playwright, critic

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  1. By Skepticlawyer » Chinese Mothers on January 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    […] and that it has been found that rote learning and attention to correct execution of handwriting is more broadly beneficial: The irony of this new discovery is that for hundreds of years educators did seem to sense that […]

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