Barbara Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University. She is involved in multiple areas of research, ranging from STEM education, to Engineering education, to learning practices.
Barbara is now a professor of engineering, but at a young age she was terrible at maths: preferring languages. A student asked her how she rewired her brain: after years as a Russian translator how did she learn engineering when she previously struggled. She looked into the issue from a neuroscience perspective.
The brain is in 2 different ‘modes’: a focussed or a diffused mode. In focussed mode you think tightly through familiar problems you have solved before. However, the diffuse thought is needed to search for new ideas – you can’t solve problems, but it is needed to find the answer if you haven’t seen it before. You need to activate this diffuse mode to think through a problem creatively: to do this Salvador Dali and Edison both sat comfortably with keys or a steel ball in their hands and started to drift off to sleep while thinking about it. When they dropped the object it woke them up and they could harvest thoughts from the diffuse thought, and start to focus on them. They found a way to get the benefits of both.
A problem in learning is procrastination: it is a natural response in the brain which feels pain at the idea of doing something you don’t want to do. One reaction is to delay – or do other more pleasant things. However if you force yourself to do it, the ‘pain’ feeling fades quickly. The ‘Pomodoro method’ is to set a timer (traditionally 25minutes on an old fashioned timer) and really focus on your task, then to take a 5minute reward break. Don’t expect to finish the task, just work on it. You are training your brain to focus on a task, and to reward yourself frequently.
People can also trick themselves into thinking they understand with poor study habits – they are just ‘spinning their wheels’ for a long time. For example simply reading or highlighting texts doesn’t make you understand, better to read a section then look away and recall the key messages. People who learn slower can gain a deeper understanding of the subject. Also, it is important to do a few problems before you can claim mastery – reading alone will not help you learn.
Learning is an amazing skill, and Barbara implores us all not to just follow our passions, but to broaden them.
Barbara is an amazing presenter, and I really wish I had seen her presentations while I was at uni. I am currently doing her MOOC (starting yesterday), and the first module is relatively similar to this talk (strongly recommended here https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/). While doing this I am questioning how much I have really ‘thought’ about something – I tend to be so task focussed that I don’t take a step back and activate diffuse thinking.
The pomodoro method is a new name to me, but is similar to other time management strategies: to break your time into modules with rests. I’ve heard 45 mins then 15mins break, as opposed to 25mins work, 5mins break. Personally I’m not sure the length of time matters (though I wouldn’t go longer than 45mins), so much as breaking your day into work and rest sessions.
Anyway, I can’t recommend this talk and the MOOC enough. I challenge everyone to think about how often they really think or learn something, as opposed to just ‘completing’ it.