Making the Connection

It may not be the most accurate analogy, but sometimes I think of the brain as an old-timey telephone switchboard. To learn new things we need to make connections between different switches. We can think of the learning process as a switchboard operator who starts out fast and gradually slows down over time. Children have the ability to form new connections far faster than adults, which is why learning languages is often so much easier for kids. However, in recent years we’ve been seeing that neuroplasticity, the ability to form and re-form connections, can be improved and that the act of learning new things can keep your brain young much like physical exercise keeps your body young.

U.S. Air Force telephone switchboard operator at work

My brain may or may not be a 1960s U.S. Air Force switchboard (though some mornings I think it’s an Airman or Airman Basic running the show instead of a Senior Airman as seen here).

So I try to learn new things and one of the great things about the present, which I sometimes think of as “living in the future,” is that there is so many opportunities to learn and grow. I’ve tried a few massive open online courses, or MOOCs, with some success, but the courses often simply don’t have what it takes for my brain to make the new connections needed to build a skill. It turns out that repetition is the key, especially when dealing with math and foreign languages. I want to improve my Spanish and brush up on my math skills (which were never all that strong to begin with).

For Spanish I have been using Duolingo. I’ve been using it for a while, but with limited results. Then one day I listened to a podcast interview of Duolingo’s founder and he mentioned that the best way to use Duolingo is to practice for 20 to 30 minutes a day at least five days a week. I had been using the experience point goals set in Duolingo, which was only three rounds of exercises. So enough to feel like I was getting practice, but it was only taking me about five or ten minutes to run through the day’s practice. For the past few weeks I’ve done 25 minute blocks every weekday and not only have I made faster progress in Duolingo’s “learning tree,” I have found that I understand a bit more of the Spanish I run into on a daily basis.

So on the heels of that I started off this week with the Algebra I section on Khan Academy. Similarly, I’m trying to spend about 20 minutes or so working on these exercises. Although it hasn’t been long enough for me to notice a big difference, I have found that a lot of the old stuff is coming back to me… especially the mental blocks I had. So I think I’ll continue with the course and move on to Algebra II in a few weeks. Then maybe off to calculus. If only Khan Academy had been around during undergrad.