• Joanne Jacobs

How your brain beats Google

Google is all very well, but you still need your brain, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in the New York Times. The more you know, the clearer and faster you can think.

Jonathan Rochelle, the director of Google’s education apps group,  “cannot answer” why his children should learn the quadratic equation, according to a recent New York Times story. After all, they can just “ask Google.”

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“With the right knowledge in memory, your brain deftly puts words in context,” Willingham writes. In addition, a good reader’s brain quickly figures out spelling, sound and meaning, which “allows other important work — for example, puzzling out the meaning of phrases — to proceed.”

Retrieving information from memory makes it “easier to find it the next time,” research has shown. “That’s why students studying for a test actually remember more if they quiz themselves than if they study as they typically do, by rereading their textbook or notes.”

Students should learn the information for which the internet is a poor substitute. Getting information from the internet takes time, so they should memorize facts that are needed fast and frequently. Elementary math facts and the sounds of letters are obvious choices, but any information that is needed with high frequency is a candidate — in algebra, that’s the quadratic equation. Students should learn not only the formula but also why it works and how it connects to other math content. That’s how contextual knowledge develops in the brain, and that’s why vocabulary instruction seldom consists of simple memorization of definitions — students are asked to use the words in a variety of sentences.

Willingham,  a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, is the author of  The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.

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