Advances in neuroscience have given us more insight into how the brain processes and retains information. We’re constantly understanding more about how we learn. But because education and cognitive science have only been cross-pollinating in the last decade or so, how we educate students has been slow to change. The way schools have delivered information to students for more than a century—learning by rote, spitting out memorized facts and figures and learning subjects in silos, disconnected from each other—is not only unexciting, it’s ineffective. It turns out that the brain prefers much more varied and dynamic forms of learning.
Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor and author of Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential, has made it her mission to learn how humans learn. Central to her work is her belief in “inoculating learners” against the notion that they’re stupid, especially if they cannot learn new things right away. She wants students to embrace the idea that faster is not always better. Since most educators aren’t well versed in neuroscience, she’s translated scientific findings into several accessible concepts:
Focused and Diffused Thinking
What we ordinarily think of as barriers to learning —distractions, interruptions or sleeping instead of studying — aren’t necessarily bad after all. According to Oakley, learning has two modes: focused and diffused. “If a concept is easy for you to grasp right off, the focused mode might be sufficient”, she says, “but if a new skill or concept takes consideration, you have to toggle back and forth between these two modes to get to true understanding of the material — and this doesn’t happen quickly.” Diffused learning is still happening in the background even when your mind isn’t focused on the task at hand. Because the brain builds knowledge continually, taking breaks, changing scenery and getting rest all benefit the learning process. When I was in high school and college, I wish I had understood that learning happens not only during reading and studying! It would have spared me a lot of anxiety and sleepless nights.
Learning forms links that after being repeated many times become a solid chain. Remember how hard it was when you first learned to tie your shoe? Each step in the process took a lot of thought. But once the process became “chained” you established what Oakley calls “procedural fluency” and it became automatic. The same is true in math or science. Once solving certain math equations becomes automatic, learning more advanced problems becomes easier.
The Power of Metaphor
Learning metaphor and analogy uses the same neural pathways as the concept the metaphor or analogy is describing. So comparing the earth’s layers to layers of lasagna brings to mind various textures and shapes laying on top of one another. Metaphor serves as a way to spark learning, especially when students come up with their own comparisons.
Apply New Learning Often and in Meaningful Contexts
Putting what we’ve learned to use makes it stick. Learning a new language is easier if you use it in a real-world context, such as on a trip or talking with a native speaker. Learner’s permits allow new drivers to practice the real-world, on the road skills they need to get a license. Understanding how areas of study relate to and influence one another, such as art and history or social studies and literature, and putting them in context also reinforces learning. When students see the relationships between subject matter it all makes more sense.
Getting to understand how and why learning happens helps students figure out what they need to do (or not do) academically and ultimately, as they get older, helps them take responsibility for their own learning journey. Even after we graduate and never have to study for another exam, knowing how our adult brains acquire and retain new information helps us tackle all sorts of things from learning to put up the new camping tent, to playing a Mozart concerto on the piano, to mastering the game of chess. Learning how to learn is a lifelong pursuit.