Barbara Oakley: Learning how to learn

Speaker

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.

Summary

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.

My Thoughts

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.

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Sir Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?

Speaker: Ken Robinson

Length: 20:03

Summary

Ken thinks that creativity is as important in education as Literacy. However, children are being taught how not to be wrong. Ken argues that being creative means that you have to be willing to be wrong, and the education system treats being wrong as the worst thing possible. In doing this, education teaches away children’s natural urge to ‘give it a go’.

All education systems globally have a ‘hierarchy’, with math and language at the top, social sciences in the middle and arts at the bottom. This is because the childhood education system was developed to satisfy the industrial revolution of the 19th century, where math and science was essential for jobs, but times have changed. While once people just needed school for a good job, then a bachelor degree, and now that alone is no guarantee for a job. Degrees have had a form of inflation over time, and this shows it is shifting too quickly. Having children go to school just to attend university is not really equipping them to work any more.

We know 3 things about intelligence

  • It is diverse – we think in many ways – visually, in sound, movement, abstract
  • it is dynamic – original ideas come about from the interaction of many different ways of seeing things.
  • it is distinct – people have their way of doing things – Ken’s example is a ‘problem student’ who couldn’t sit still at school, but when moved to a dance school fit in fine – she needed to move to think. Her dance skills went on to give her immense fame and fortune, bringing value to millions of people. In modern times, she would probably have been given ADHD medication and been put told to calm down.

We need to redefine our education system – our current way is one of ‘strip mining’ our children for the most desired properties, in the same way we mined the Earth for ore. We now need to use our imaginations and creativity wisely, to face an uncertain and problematic future. We may not see this future, but need to equip our children to conquer it.

Peter Doolittle: How your “working memory” makes sense of the world

Speaker: Peter Doolittle

Length: 9:30

Rating 2 / 5

Summary

Your ability to solve problems is limited to your ‘working memory’ capacity – to remember and think at the same time. The example was memorising 5 words and then doing maths problems, which most people failed. He gives some (very brief) hints on how to process things more accurately, and remember more – including visualising more, and practising the things we’re learning.

Critique

Interesting viewpoint, but missing the ‘killer’ ending telling us how to improve. Actually, he seemed to give quite a few hints, but perhaps my limited processing power wasn’t picking up on all of it 🙂

By this I mean he ran through the advice and hints too quickly, and without any elaboration. It made things difficult. The irony is not lost, but I missed most of it.

Still, the story of working memory itself is interesting, so I can at least take away knowledge of what it is.

How to learn anything in 20 hours

Speaker: Josh Kaufman

Length: 19:27

Rating 4 / 5

Summary

You can get to a passable level in a new skill with 20 hrs practise. You just need to

  1. Deconstruct the skill into its important parts. Reduce the skill to an achievable level
  2. Learn enough to know when you are on the right track
  3. Focus, push through the “Feeling stupid” phase of learning, and practise

Critique

A good idea, and presented well. His example of learning to play ukulele from its 4 most common chords was good. Also very inspiring – the idea to just learn what you want – you don’t need to become an expert.

I then went to think about what I want to learn. That’s when it gets tricky. It should definitely work to get to a beginners level for artistic or performance skills – eg music, drawing, photoshop, juggling, martial arts, language.

It’s harder to imagine for tasks which take longer to do or rely on more theoretical knowledge, where you can’t rely on feedback and practise so much. eg learning chemistry, electronics, building. I’d be keen to see an example or a wiki of more people deconstructing and performing a skill, to see if it can be done.

In the end though, his ‘can do’ attitude is inspiring and I recommend the talk.