“There’s a race car brain and a hiker brain. They both get to the finish line, but not at the same time. The race car brain gets there really fast, but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker brain takes time. It hears birds singing, sees the rabbit trails, feels the leaves. It’s a very different experience and, in some ways, much richer and deeper. You don’t need to be a super swift learner. In fact, sometimes you can learn more deeply by going slowly.”
I watched her TED Talk and immediately was hooked by how she makes the science of learning practical.
I looked up her book, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) and recorded my top 10 takeaways below.
Two things to keep in mind before I start my list:Dr. Oakley hated math when she was in school. She did not feel she was good at that subject or science In her mid-twenties, however, she decided to get a degree in engineering. She learned how to excel at both subjects and now she is a professor of engineering. Her personal experience plus years of studying how we learn best resulted in this book and much of her other work.
Though I'm excited about what I learned from it, I was a little disappointed in the book. I’ve been working in the middle school math class a lot this year. I had high hopes for the book after I read the description. I was let down only because I think a lot of the people who found hope in the book’s title would not finish reading it. It is long, overly repetitious at times and it could use some more concrete examples in parts. I don't know if a struggling learner would press through it to glean the important lessons it holds, especially if they're also trying to keep up in a class. I do recommend it highly to teachers, thought, since they can take the key ideas and bring them to struggling learners.
So let’s get on with those key ideas:1) Most importantly, this book continually reminds us that anyone can learn anything. Dr. Oakley’s story is powerful, but so are the many others she highlights throughout. She tells their stories and at the end of the chapters, she lets some people tell their own stories. She says persistence is often more important than intelligence when it comes to learning.
2) We can get too caught up in following our passions. Dr. Oakley knows from experience that sometimes passion can come after we learn we can succeed at something. It’s a powerful lesson for anyone growing up in this time of rapid change: Try it. Once you learn it, you might discover you have a passion for it.
3) There are two types of thinking and we need to employ both when learning complex concepts. There’s focused thinking, which comes to mind for most of us when we consider learning. That’s putting in the hours, with full attention on the task. But there’s also diffused thinking, which takes place in our subconscious, after we stop focusing. I can attest to this, as I often find the right way to organize my paper or the right line for a song after I close my computer and walk out to make tea. Regular breaks in studying is important.
4) Besides regular breaks, make it a habit to learn math and science steadily, studying and practicing every day. Also review topics over time. Returning to them again and again over time helps move the ideas into long term memory.
5) Chunking is a major concept in the book. I think of it as compressing a lot of related ideas or a concept. As you need to use those ideas, solutions or procedures, you can unpack the whole concept quickly without holding every piece in your limited working memory. It aids in problem solving.
In my own teaching, I use the trip from our homes to school as an example of a “chunk”. For most of us, that trip involves a lot of roads and turns to remember, but we can just think of it as “on the way home”. We travel it without realizing most of it and minor changes to the plan are easily accounted for. We don’t freak out and forget everything just because one road is blocked or because we have to stop at the post office sometimes.
6) Practice, understanding the basic ideas and focused attention help build these important chunks of understanding. Learning on your own can also help. Also (as teachers will tell you) this deep understanding can develop from explaining concepts to others. And warning: Dr. Oakley specifically points out multi-tasking when studying makes it very unlikely you’ll develop this deep understanding.
7) Our focused approach to learning and even our focused attention can trick us into thinking we know something better than we do. Reading notes or a book over and over, for example, can make us feel we learned a lot, when really it might not stick. Instead, practice recalling the information from memory. At the end of every chapter, she reminds us to look away and try to remember the list of items in the chapter summary.
8) Get enough sleep. When preparing for a test, if you don’t get your rest, you probably undid any other preparations you made.
9) Dr. Oakley refers frequently to the Pomodoro Technique when learning or setting any important habit for success. The idea is you set a timer for 25 minutes and ignore all distractions during that time as you work on a task. When the timer goes off, reward yourself with a short break.
10) Build discipline and fight procrastination by committing to important routines and tasks each day. It helps to write your planned tasks out the night before so your diffused brain can think on them.
And a bonus (unstated) takeaway I couldn't ignore was this: You have to be intentional about real learning. It’s hard work to learn what doesn’t come naturally, but the good news is that it’s possible.
*That video series I was finishing is only epic by my standards! I think it's worth seeing though. Please watch it and share it if you're so inclined.