Fluency And The Brain.

Knowing How The Brain Works Will Help With Multiplication & Division Fact Fluency.

Although there is still much that is unknown about the activities of our amazing brains, the science of understanding how the brain functions has made leaps and bounds in recent years. 

For our purposes here, we will stick to very basic understandings that will help you make the best use of your time and your child’s time. 

How Fluency Is Achieved - “Scientifically” Speaking

Our brains contain nerve cells called neurons.  At the ends of the neurons are branching projections called dendrites and axons.  Synapses are the points where one neuron connects to and communicates with another neuron. 

The most common types of synapses, or electrical impulses, jump from dendrites of one neuron to the axon of another neuron, relaying information along these pathways. Each neuron is capable of thousands of synapses. 

All the activities that go on in our brains happen in similar ways at amazing speeds.  The more frequently pathways are used, the more quickly synapses happen (think about how you read automatically or fluently without analyzing each word).  The more a pathway is used, the more likely the synapses along that pathway will happen automatically (fluently) even when we want to change (think: habits).  

Illustration of brain neuron showing how synapses work

Illustration of a brain neuron. The formation of these synaptic pathways are what lead to basic fact fluency.

Why Some Methods For Learning Basic Facts Don’t Lead To Fluency.

If a child learns multiplication facts by counting up, singing a song, or positioning fingers, those pathways are the ones being practiced, and that’s what the brain wants to continue to do.  The brain has learned that it goes through those steps to get the answer.  

Silhouette of boy going through multiple steps in his mind to retrieve a basic multiplication fact.

Some methods used for learning basic facts require wading through cumbersome & inefficient steps for retrieval.

So when we try to switch to immediate recall, the brain balks. It seems easier to stick with the old established pathway than to learn a new one and discard the old one.

If multiplication is learned first and division is learned later, the brain has established its synapses for multiplication and has to reroute to apply to division.  

Additionally, if facts are practiced in random order or helter-skelter, there are no pathways being laid down.  It’s as if there are bundles of wires not connected, or synapses bouncing all over the place.  

Railroad tracts used to illustrate the inefficiency of gimmicks and random practice in basic fact fluency.

When ineffective or gimmicky methods for learning basic facts are used, the brain hits a 'roadblock' when switching to immediate recall for retrieval.

How To Learn Basic Facts In The Most Efficient (& Frustration-Free) Way.

Let’s use the example of learning to play a musical instrument. 

The most efficient way to learn a new piece of music is to play through the music as slowly as necessary to get the notes right and as many times as necessary to establish the neural pathways.  

For those who practice fast and make lots of mistakes, the brain has to work much harder to establish the pathways. It’s much the same for any rote learning. 

It helps to remember: “neurons that wire together fire together.”   Neurons are registering what we’re seeing, how comfortable we feel, the learning task at hand, and who knows what else all at once.  

Our task as parents and teachers is to encourage proper “wiring” by managing the environment and the learning tasks in such a way that the desired neurons “fire” together in the most efficient way possible.

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