Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Brainetics Can Make You Smarter and Fun At Parties

Guess what I can do? Figure out the square root of any number from fifty to fifty nine, in my head. That's right - I'm a badass. But I never would have been able to do it if it weren't for Brainetics.

I was asked to by the Parent Bloggers Network to try out Brainetics, a learning system intended to help children in grades 4 through 7 master math and language skills by using shortcuts and memory tricks. The program was developed by Mike Byster, described in the brochure as a "human calculator." And I believe it after seeing the speed with which he added up columns of digits, figured out square roots in his head and multiplied endless rows of numbers. He can even alphabetize all the words in a sentence as you're talking to him, which could be either the best trick ever or the most annoying habit of all time.

The system consists of five DVDs that take you through various exercises, tricks and challenges that can help your child master math and language skills. I went through the system with my 9 and 11-year-old daughters who are in grades 4 and 6 with varying degrees of interest; some of the lessons required a higher level of multiplication skills than the average 4th grader, and a level of concentration that even three juice boxes couldn't improve.

Here's a brief rundown of what you'll find with the Brainetics program. I'm going to divide my review according to the five DVDs, since I feel that each one could also be used on its own, depending on which skills your child would like to develop. (The kit comes with a 'playbook' which is a workbook with most of the exercises they present in the DVDs.)

DVD 1 - Warm Up: Number Fun
My two girls are fresh and ready on the first day of our Brainetics run. It starts off with magic squares, which are grids in which every row, column and diagonal "magically" adds up to the same number. Both my girls have had their fill of these in school and were anxious to move on to the next exercises, although my 9-year old mentions that now she'll be able to "beat the fifth-graders at Magic Squares." We all liked a card trick called Take Ten, which uses simple addition to help you figure out which two cards have been pulled out of a deck. They're anxious to use this trick to impress their friends and older cousins, which seems to be a running theme here.

DVD 2 - Stretch Your Mind: Math Tricks
As I mentioned, the Fibonacci sequence is introduced here, which I found more interesting than my daughters did. They were much more anxious to learn the "ESP" tricks Byster uses to guess a number you're thinking of. Again, at this point I'm starting to get concerned that my daughters desire to learn party tricks is a precursor to college beer games and rounds of naked spin the bottle.

DVD 3 - Cranium Crunching: Math Shortcuts
By the third disc my 9-year-old is accusing me of "secretly trying to teach" her math, and opts to play with the cat. I ask her to calculate the number of times she'll clean the litter box in a year, as my 11-year old (and I) quickly master Byster's tricks for figuring out square roots, dividing and multiplying two-digit numbers. Note: As with most of his demonstrations, they are usually limited to certain equations. For example, he might show a shortcut for dividing by 91 but not for 80, or 65, or 50. My daughter's answer? "That's why calculators were invented!" I have to agree.

DVD 4 - Go The Distance: Mental Math
I admit that even this section had me nodding off a little and is probably for the very dedicated math student. Sometimes I felt like his 'shortcuts' for adding and multiplying seemed more laborious than doing it the long-hand method. Even though he stresses that some of these drills are only meant as brain exercises, I have to confess that we fast-forward through most of DVD 4. But I assured my daughter that we're still good people.

(Slightly off topic, There is a short animated sequence on this disk that tells the story of Thomas Fuller, a slave in the 1700's who was considered a mathematical genius. I found the dialog between Fuller and the slave-owners rather degrading, and wholly unnecessary in the context of what they were trying to demonstrate. I'm curious to hear other reviewers take on this.)

DVD 5 - Peak Performance: Word Challenge
This was my favorite disc of all, and one that even got my 9-year-old to come back on board. Byster teaches some very effective tricks for memorizing words and phrases. He tells a poignant story of a third grade teacher that changed his life when she introduced him to mnemonics, a way to associate what needs to be memorized with something else to make it more memorable. he recounts how she taught them the planets and their order by using the sentence 'My Very Educated Mother Just Sold Us Nine Pizzas' (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.) He then has you attempt to memorize ten words without using mnemonics, and then again later on by putting each of the words in a story. The result? My daughters and I were able to memorize only five the first time, and all ten the second time.

Overall, I would recommend Brainetics for anyone whose kids are average to better performers in math, and are looking for a way to boost their learning skills. Most of all I enjoy Byster's enthusiasm for learning, his belief that anyone can master his skills, and for his urging to "think outside the box." One thing is certain - he got my two daughters to enjoy math, if only for a short while. Now that's a cool party trick.

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