An Interview with Mitch Moldofsky: Thinking Skills Club

Sep 22, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Mitch, what is this Thinking Skills Club that I keep hearing about and how did it come about ?

The club is something I started at my sons’ school a few years ago to take advantage of research I came across while pursuing my degree in Cognitive Science (brain-mind studies) about the power of ordinary video games to improve cognitive function. They have about 25 computers in their school library which sit idle after school hours, and I thought if I could find a variety of online games that my research showed improved cognitive abilities (“thinking skills”) I could get a bunch of kids to play them after school and that would be worthwhile.

2) What specific skills are you trying to encourage ?

The site is for general cognitive enrichment. Students are encouraged to play games in all six areas of the site, and are rewarded for doing so by winning pieces of a brain puzzle, a trick I borrowed from the board game Trivial Pursuit where you collect pieces of a pie.

The six areas are:

1) executive function skills, which have to do with planning and revising plans, predicting what will happen, decision making, judgment, and so on,

2) problem solving, which includes linear (how to get from A to B) and insight problem solving (how to solve a riddle),

3) memory, both long and short term,

4) processing speed, especially visual-auditory linkage, which is helpful in reading,

5) social skills, such as empathy and cooperation, and

6) attention, including 4 types: divided, sustained, selective, and spatial, which helps with math.

I was a bit surprised that I was able to find such an array of skills supported for free on the internet, if you knew what to look for.

3) How do you define working memory and how does this club build those skills?

I define it on the “Grown Ups” side of the site as “What’s in your mind when you’re working on something.” In other words, when you have a problem to solve and no paper to write things down on, your working memory is where you have to store that information. The games address this with three types of games: digit span games, which are about how many things you can remember at one time; working memory games, which mostly involve serving customers, remembering their orders and the sequence needed to put them together, collect their money, etc., before they get mad and leave; and short term memory games, where you have to remember what you just saw. By practicing these skills you build neural connections in the associated brain areas. Games are great for this because even though you have to do things over and over, it doesn’t feel like practicing.

4) What about empathy and social skills?

The empathy games are based on research in playing prosocial games that was undertaken in response to the many studies of the effects of violent game play on children. The question was asked, if violent games make kids more aggressive in thought and action, would prosocial games in which you win by helping someone out have the opposite effect? The results were amazing to me, a significant number of people in a lab who played a very simple helping game for only a few minutes actually intervened in a staged argument, while those who played a neutral or aggressive game did not. The study can be accessed from the Grown Ups side of my site, which explains the selection of the games and has links to research. The other social skill I include is cooperation, and this actually came from watching kids in my club play together, since one of the games on the site could be played by two people, and they had to play cooperatively to succeed. Watching them interact and work together was quite inspiring.

5) There is always concern about attention deficit- does this club or your platform address this ?

There are sustained attention games which require the kind of focused attention that is encouraged in neurofeedback therapies directed at getting ADHD kids to be more calm and thoughtful. There aren’t that many of them, however, since most games are more active. There are also games for developing divided attention which would be helpful to play. To deal with serious ADHD, however, there are other approaches I suggest on the website.

6) Are there games for grownups? Or even adults?

They’re challenging enough for grown ups, but they’re aimed at kids between 8 and 15 years old. This seems to be the age range that likes online games best. Grown up gamers are attracted by more complex or longer games, often with multiple players. My games have to have levels that are achievable in a short time, they have to run online (no downloading) and be self-contained.

7) Mitch what about people who may be recovering from a head injury or stroke ? Would this help?

It wouldn’t hurt. As an activity, it would probably be beneficial, and I’ve read of similar games being used for that, though there are no studies on the specific games on my site. I’d love for someone to try it and let me know. I have doubts that people in that group would enjoy playing as much as kids do, though.

8) What about slow readers? Would this help their reading rate?

There is evidence that improving working memory helps with reading and also visual-auditory processing speed, and there are good games for both on the site. That said, there is another program I know of that has games specifically designed to improve reading, so if someone had this concern I would encourage them to consider that.

9) What is a curated site ? I have never heard that term.

“Curated” is used mostly in the art world: someone curates, i.e., selects the pieces for an art show. It means there is a lot of stuff out there, and I’m making informed choices for people.

10) Where can interested people get more information? Do you have a web site?

The “Grown Ups” side of the site I keep referring to is at www.thinkingskillsclub.com. It links to the kid’s site but also explains membership options, how the games should be used, how they’re selected, and so on. Anyone can go to the kid’s site, www.tskillsclub.com, and play the games for free, but being a member lets them track their progress using the brain puzzle.

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