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(I) The Role of Automaticity in Problem-Solving

"Once I get a good look, it’s all mechanics from that
point on."

- Quote from Michael Jordan of the Wizards in an interview after scoring the game winning point against the Cavaliers on January 31, 2002

In athletics, it is taken for granted that excellence entails hours and hours of repetitious drills of basic skills. In basketball, the basic skills include dribbling, lay-ups, free throws. Practicing these skills individually in lengthy sessions of boring, repetitious activities allows the brain to code the body to respond automatically when execution is required in a game situation. This frees the brain’s working memory to dedicate its processing to strategic implementation of the various skills required to play an excellent game of basketball. This is what Michael Jordan is talking about. Once his brain’s working memory has identified a scoring opportunity and a strategic plan for implementation, his body will take over. The well-trained elite athlete will not have to think about the specific dynamics of how to dribble the ball to the right point on the basketball court to score the basket. "It’s all mechanics from that point on."

The same is true about using mathematics in problem solving. If you have practiced all the basic skills needed to solve problems to the point of automaticity, then you will not have to use any working memory to remember multiplication facts, how to factor polynomials, or laws of exponents – all the basic elements of useful mathematics. Instead, you will be able to devote all your working memory capacity to the more demanding task of figuring out strategies for solving the problem. If you leave it to your working memory to try to figure out what skills are needed and how to employ those skills, then you will overload your brain and make mistakes.

- taken from The Math Plague, 2007, pp. 6-7

For more information, please see May, Rabinowitz & Mantyka, 2002, pp. 12-18.