# Counting

We learned some things so long ago that we have no recollection of the process.  The words “Mom” and “Dad” and the names of our siblings.  That you don’t stick your hand into an open flame or onto a glowing red burner.  Simple temporal concepts, like “today” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and “later.”

And basic words.  Anybody who has children knows that kids typically learn the words “yes” and “no” some time before the age of two and then stubbornly and infuriatingly speak, shout, or scream the word “no” exclusively for the next 12 months.

But counting comes later, along with learning your ABCs.  Counting is a building block for math, just like learning the alphabet is a building block for reading and spelling.  When you think about it, counting is a fairly sophisticated concept.  First you grasp the difference between none, one, and many — and then you learn that specific words and symbols represent precise numbers of, say, the little meatballs in the Chef Boyardee spaghetti that your Mom served for lunch.

One of the challenges of counting, of course, is that the words that represent the numbers, and their progression, aren’t intuitive.  I thought of counting and its challenges when I stumbled across this article about the words “eleven” and “twelve” and their history.  For many kids, the numbers between 10 and 20 are the big challenge because they’re weird and not consistent with the concepts that come before (between 1 and 10) or after (for 20 and up).  To this day, I think the only reason I know the world “delve” is because of the rhyme I learned about counting as a kid.  (“Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.”)

So where did eleven and twelve come from?  According to etymologists, both come from the root word “lif,” which apparently meant “to leave” — the concept being that 11 would mean one left after 10, and 12 would mean two left after 10.  It’s weird, and something that would forever after cause kids learning to count to stumble and hesitate after then got to 10, but it’s not unique to English — when you learn how to count in French, at least, you encounter the same issue and strange words just after “dix”.

That suggests that, in the early days among the common folk, most people didn’t need to routinely count up to 573, or for that matter much past ten.  That makes sense, because we’ve got ten fingers and kids learning to count often do so using their fingers.  Our ancestors created special words for the numbers just past ten, but at a certain point they probably just shrugged and settled for “many” rather than going for precision.

Lots of kids learning to count would like to have taken the same approach.

# Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact.

Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

# Get Some Sleep!

It’s hard to imagine that we need scientific studies to encourage us to sleep, but the evidence is mounting that getting enough shut-eye at night has crucial, lasting benefits for human beings.

The latest study examines the role of sleep in improving memory and learning.  The study found that sleep promotes the creation of brain synapses — the connections between the brain’s neurons — that are essential to learning.  That study follows countless others that demonstrate the physical and mental benefits of sleep — a state that allows the brain to discard toxins formed by daily activity, helps us recharge and reduce the risk of many different diseases, and restores the body to the ancient circadian rhythms that human beings have followed since the dawn of the species.

I’ve always tried to make sure that I get enough sleep.  In law school, on the day before our final exams when some of my classmates would stay up until all hours cramming, I  put my books aside and went to bed early so I could be fresh and ready for the big test tomorrow.  I always felt like my rested state gave me an advantage in terms of energy and mental focus, and I’ve tried to carry through that practice in my career, too.

Many of us — in our zeal to be SuperMom, or our focus on our jobs, or our desire to cram every conceivable bit of activity into the waking hours — have cut significantly into our sleep time.  Obviously, it’s a mistake.  If you want to help your kids do better in school or on the job, make sure they get a good night’s sleep.  And instead of staying up to watch a late night talk show or another Seinfeld rerun, why not hit the sack yourself?

# Trying To Row In A Straight Line, And Learning A Lesson

One morning during our visit to Lake Temagami, the Elder Statesman and I went fishing in a rowboat.  The Elder Stateman rowed us out onto a bay in the lake and we drifted along, trying without success to get a nibble.

After a few hours, the sky grew cloudy, the wind had picked up, and we decided it was time to head back to the island.  I felt guilty sitting back while a senior citizen manned the oars, so I took over and began to row us back.  I’ve never really rowed before, except for trying a rowing machine or two in visits to workout facilities.  But, I’ve seen people rowing in perfect precision in sculling competitions, and the Elder Stateman had capably piloted us out into the bay.  How hard can it be?

The answer is:  a heck of a lot harder than I thought, and frustrating besides.  There’s lots of moving parts.  You’re trying to achieve uniform strokes, at uniform depth, hitting the water at about the same point and then pulling through.  And, you’re doing it all while you have your back to the target.  If you don’t know what you’re doing — and I obviously didn’t — it’s very easy to veer far off course.  And then you have to figure our which oar moves you back in the right direction.  Add in a little wind and chop on the water, and you’ve got a tough challenge for the novice know-it-all.  I soon realized that my confidence in my innate rowing ability was sorely misplaced.  I was not making much progress and instead was cutting long, looping S curves through the water rather than moving directly toward our destination.  It was frustrating and embarrassing.

After a while I got the hang of it — sort of — and made some progress in moving us across the bay, but as we neared the island I gladly yielded the oars to the Elder Statemen to steer us to the dock.

You’d think that a 55-year-old would have realized by now that it is foolish to have mindless confidence that he can do something he’s never done before.  Obviously, I’ve still got a lot of life lessons to learn.

# The Demotivational Impact Of Empty Platitudes

According to an article in the Washington Post, schools and teachers have finally begun to recognize that efforts to boost student “self-esteem” that aren’t tied to concrete accomplishment aren’t achieving anything.  The article says that three decades of research shows that constant praise irrespective of performance, participation trophies, and the like aren’t actually increasing self-esteem and instead are interfering with actual improvement and accomplishment.

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone.  Indeed, the only surprise lies in the fact that it took three decades for schools to figure out what is obvious to most parents — but then, once a “concept” like “promoting self-esteem” gets rooted in the hidebound American educational system, it’s almost impossible to dig it out.

Kids — even kids who learn at a slower pace — aren’t stupid.  They’re observant and socially aware.  They know who is smart or adept at math or science and who isn’t, just like they know who is good at sports and who is a klutz.  If you praise them for non-performance, they will feel patronized, not proud — and may conclude that you don’t care, or are too incompetent to determine, whether they are really learning.  Neither message motivates kids to work harder and learn.  Ask any parents whose basements are filled with boxes of the silly participation trophies or good citizenship medals or attendance certificates their kids have received — those “awards” mean nothing because the kids intuitively know that awards given to everyone mean nothing.

Self-esteem can’t be conferred, it has to be earned and developed by actual achievement.  It’s time to return to schools that feature competitions with winners and losers, like science fairs and spelling bees and speech contests.  When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game called conductor where two kids would stand next to a desk.  The teacher would call out a math calculation, and the first student to give the right answer would move on while the loser would sit.  If you made it through the entire classroom you felt legitimate pride — and those who sat down were motivated to work harder.

We need to forget about the trophy generation, and focus instead on how to turn our youngsters into an actual achievement generation.