Neil Tambe

Husband, Father, Citizen, Professional.

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Mental Gymnastics - which mental muscles do you train?

I was driving with some colleagues to our client’s office in New Jersey on Monday. On this 45-or-so minute long car ride, I came to find out that one of my colleagues – Kevin – teaches young kids how to play chess. Needless to say, I thought this was pretty cool (I like chess) and have always admired the game. It’s strategic and spatial. Moreover, I know that chess develops the mind, even though I had never thought about why or how.

Kevin mentioned some of his training practices and outcomes. As it turns out, some of his advanced students can learn to think 12-13 moves in advance. Of course, they develop an ability to do this over time, but it’s a cognitive behavior they learn. Very impressive.

I began thinking, what an important behavior to have. How might the world be different if people or organizations thought about the consequences of their actions before they happened and, get this, altered their behavior and made sacrifices to maximize their utility down the road?

So I began thinking this week. What are other cognitive processes that would be really valuable to learn as a child? Or, even as an adult for that matter. I started compiling a list. It’s a list of cognitive processes that people do with their brains (please do let me know if you think of more, yea?).

  • Recreating an experience – This is an ability to think of an experience and live it all over again. Being able to recreate a memory in your head as a fresh mental experience.
  • Self-awareness – Being able to understand yourself and see yourself how other people see you.
  • Imagination – This is an ability to think of something you’ve never experienced before.
  • Analysis - Seeing something and understanding its component parts.
  • Construction - Seeing something’s component parts and understanding its broader function.
  • Empathy – Understanding what someone else is feeling.
  • Strategy - Thinking a few steps ahead and envisioning how things will happen over time.
  • Systems/Root-cause analysis – Looking into the past to understand the root causes of the present and why things played out over time.
  • Memory – storing and having command over the recollection of information.
  • Network analysis – Combining bits of knowledge while understanding and gleaning meaning from the connections.
  • Logic – having a command of logical reasoning.
  • Discipline – Having the control of the mind to not jump to conclusions or cloud thinking with emotional or physical urges.

Notice, though, that these are not skills nor knowledge areas. These are cognitive processes that someone could apply to any situation or mental task…from art to academia. Think of it this way, dancers need to be strategic just like military commanders…they have to be able to think 7-10 steps into the future. Financiers need to be as imaginative as sculptors or computer programmers. All these cognitive processes are important to develop.

Of course, a give person probably requires some more than others in their day-to-day lives, but they are all processes that enhance “thinking”. In fact, I’d consider “thinking” to be a symphony of the cognitive processes I’ve listed here.

I almost think K-B.A. education doesn’t really require measurement of achievement in a subject area. Truly, reading, math and science are all really important because they make the cognitive processes I’ve listed really robust. If I were a teacher I’d try to do things that developed my kids’ imaginations and strategic abilities rather than having them know the properties of ionic bonds or the tenets of the Articles of Confederation. In other words, I’d aim to develop cognitive abilities and build the best multi-disciplinary curriculum I could to accomplish that goal, rather than focus on achievement in a set of disciplines and let cognitive processes develop incidentally.

How, as a teacher, does one do that?