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Thursday, January 30, 2014

String games for lifelong learning

Ambidexterity, mathetics, and chiral differences: how string games can open a path to self-directed lifelong learning


As my first formal post to the #DLMOOC, I’d like to offer an attempt to integrate a variety of arguments I’ve offered over several decades about why to use string figures in the classroom into a theory of learning development which I’ve not heard articulated in this manner before.
When I first thought to bring string games into the classroom, I was teaching third graders in a bilingual program, and found that I could not effectively teach the computer keyboarding skills which were supposed to be part of the curriculum without first teaching the names of the individual fingers. Most native Spanish speakers, even those who are highly educated, do not know the individual finger names. Close study of the finger names helped students connect with the dexterity development that needed to be done concomitantly, and I always felt that the original objective – to improve keyboarding skills – is almost always achieved with string figure practice.

I've developed a few simple finger games, based on neurological tests my psychiatrist father taught me, which you can see me demonstrating in this clip from a Teachers Teaching Teachers episode I did with Paul Allison and several others last year. I call them “Finger Calisthenics.”

Here’s an enumeration of the learning benefits of string games:

  • 1) ambidexterity [that one is obvious and uncontroversial, except most folks don't realize what a powerful brain booster ambidexterity is...]
  • 2) executive function -- the crucial ability to delay gratification in the interest of some later payoff
  • 3) developing connections across the two hemispheres of the brain, thus enhancing both logical and creative thinking
  • 4) resilience -- being able to experience failure and keep trying
  • 5) sequencing -- being able to manage and remember complex multi-step processes
  • 6) storytelling and writing -- creating new understandings through articulating and expressing one's thoughts in spoken and written words
  • 7) learning and teaching -- in a group setting, some kids always learn a particular figure more quickly than others, so they get immediately thrust into the role of teacher to other students, and gain better understanding of what's involved in teaching and more awareness of their own and others' learning styles


I'm developing a couple of projects that hopefully will become “mini-residencies” at two different school sites, where I plan to work with any interested teachers on identifying string games that fit with their existing curriculum plans, or adding an art/storytelling/writing unit which utilizes them.

Here's a link to my String Games Playlist on YouTube, and there are DIY videos for learning many figures. The fun is one of the main points, but the learning benefits are astounding – James Murphy tells an inspiring story about teaching a blind student trigonometry with string figures, and how in the course of the learning process, the student also acquired a marked increase in his ability to navigate independently, to the point of being able to ride the New York City subway!