Learning the Nintendo way

Latest neuroscience research on how children learn – applied to dogs
By Laure-Anne Visele, written Nov 2012
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I was cycling home, and listening to a mind-blowing podcast about neuroscience –God forbid I should ever be alone with my own thoughts…

Read on for seven neuroscience tips to a genius child (or dog, or elephant, or anything equipped with a mammalian brain).

Lynne Malcolm, All in the Mind presenter

Lynn Malcolm (All in the Mind presenter) was talking to Dr Julie Willis about her work in child learning.

The messages matched modern dog training so tightly, I could have been listening to Canine Nation.

1. Make them want it

Sure, you can force some abstract theorem about the hypothenuse down the kids’ throat.

But first, send them triangle-hunting in the park. Make it real for them, and relevant, and exciting. THEN, and only then, talk about the hypothenuse. Just don’t start until they know how awesome and ubiquitous triangles are.

2. Make them feel it

Don’t just show use the blackboard. Make them sing it, touch it, smell it, taste it. Use – their – senses.

3. Make them BE it

Don’t just park the kids in neat rows of  desks.

Make them whizz around the nucleus like they’re electrons (OK, electrons don’t so much orbit as exist in a varying states of probability, but go emulate THAT). Make them run around in orbits like moon or Saturn or Jupiter.

4. Make them grasp it

Like it or not, your kids form the electronic generation. They won’t need to spell, do mental maths, or learn dates. But they WILL need to grasp the concepts, and know when to apply them, and how to retrieve them.

So focus on the fundamentals, the ideas, the patterns. Forget about word-for-word textbook rendition.

5. Make them try it

Let them try to work it out. You would give them a chance to know how Newton felt when struggling to solve our world’s mysteries. Don’t spoil the fun and give out all the answers. Start with the questions.

Have a ten-minute brainstorm on how they think animals evolve, or apples fall, or lakes form. They won’t come up with the laws of motion, but they’ll have collected a bag of creative, analytical, and problem-solving skills trying.

6. Make them REALLY want it

Guess who leads the world in getting kids hooked to learning? I’ll give you a clue: it ain’t Yale, Cambridge, or UCLA. Nope: we’re talking Sega, Atari and Nintendo. They have been sending our kids into maniacal skill-perfecting quests for years.

Sure, the skills in question are useless, but it is still learning. Nintendo et al get our kids to hone surgeon-like precision, pilot-like timing and cabbie-like memory skills just to reach that higher level. And all for what? To maybe, just maybe, save that dumb princess.

So how do they do it? They manipulate the kids’ dopamine pathways (i.e. the brain’s pleasure ‘centres’):

  • Gambling: Before each new challenge, get the kid to wonder whether he can make it this time.  And then…
  • Instant feedback: Let them try it out instantly, so they can work out what went wrong and try again immediately. Don’t wait three months for the kids to test their improved strategies.
  • Challenging but achievable level: Dead certs and certain failure don’t do much for suspense… Under-challenged kids become bored –and disruptive– and struggling kids become humiliated–and, well, disruptive. The one-size-fits-all approach feels economical, but what about the wasted talents and the kids left behind?

7. Make them take a step back

The MindUP Program demonstrated to toddlers (through animations) that the amygdala –the bit that modulates ‘baser’ brain function–could paralyze the cortex– the bit that modulates higher brain function– when they were feeling stressed. They then taught the kids to recognize when they were getting overwhelmed, and to then slow down, take a step back, and re-focus.

Guess how old these kids were?… THREE-AND-A-HALF-YEARS-OLD! That makes my own little genius look positively slow.

A tearful goodbye

I shed a little tear (yes, I was still riding my bike) when I heard the closing story.

MindUP was helping this 10-year-old boy with problems at home. He was struggling to focus, falling behind, and lashing out. He was hating himself for it. After the project, he said: “I used to get up thinking I was going to have a bad day but now I think everything is going to be OK“.

So we can teach our kids much more than the world capitals and multiplication tables, and we can teach our dogs more than puzzle solving and sitting on cue: we can teach them optimism.

Your comments

What do you think? How can we use these tips practically in dog training? I have tons of ideas, like using more props and empowerment training.

Have you given this stuff much thought before? Does it ring true?

Further reading

Dogs and society

Dog training and behaviour

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