Smashing it in School

Think back to when you were at school and your least favourite subject, the one you struggled to pass or perhaps even failed. Most of us assume that the lessons that don’t come easy never will, but what if there was a way of training your brain to learn the hard stuff? The co-author of a new book which aims to teach children ‘how’ to learn, Alistair McConville, claims kids already have all the tools they need to master the subjects that don’t come naturally…

As Deputy Head of Bedales School, one of England’s most prestigious private K-12 schools,Alistair has had many years of experience teaching young people. Now he has teamed up with Dr. Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and the instructor of the Learning How To Learnopen online course (the world’s most popular course) and one of only 12 living scientists who have been elected to the Institute of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering – Terrence Sejnowski – to help the rest of us break down the science of how our brains process and recall information, and therefore understand how to make the most of studying.

Learning How To Learn covers common issues that all ages, not just children, find difficult when it comes to studying: Why trying too hard can sometimes be part of the problem, how to deal with distraction and procrastination and uses fun, relatable metaphors to setting goals, e.g. when it comes to getting the task done become a zombie. Why? Nothing distracts them and they never give up!

Surprisingly, one of the big reveals of the book that the authors are all in agreement with, is that sometimes letting your mind wander can actually be an important part of the learning process. So, for many of us who can recall being told off by a teacher for daydreaming in class what exactly does that mean? Alistair enlightens me, ‘Well, firstly, we’re not encouraging pupils to give up focusing in class! They do need to learn to switch that focus on when it’s needed, which can be a conscious act, and we give them some tips for that. We are drawing attention to the benefits of switching in and out of sharp focus. When you go into ‘diffuse’ mode, which is like allowing your mind to wander, your brain is able to see the big picture more easily than when it’s tightly focused. In diffuse mode, you can come up with creative ways of thinking about material that you just can’t see when you’re zoomed in on the details.

‘To help you to see how these ideas play out, we use the example of two different kinds of pinball table. When you’re in focused mode, it’s as though your thought is pinging up onto a pinball table with lots of tightly packed bumpers. It will use up all of its energy in just one small area of the table. On the other hand, when a table has more widely spaced bumpers, the pinball will travel further and distribute its energy more broadly.

‘It’s like that in the brain. When you’re in diffuse mode, your thoughts will almost literally bump into a much wider range of information and concepts than when you’re focused. This is obviously great for making creative leaps, seeing imaginative solutions, and grasping “the big picture”. But you have to learn the material first, so concentration is important too! You need both.’

Another interesting concept the book explores is how to avoid “rut think” in order to problem solve. Alistair continues, ‘Rut think is when you can’t see your way through a problem because you get fixed in one particular approach and it doesn’t work. But since you feel certain that the approach you’re using is “right”, (for example, because you remember what the teacher showed you on the board in a previous lesson), you keep on banging away at it with the same method. It’s an example of when your focused mode—if that’s the only mode you’re using—can be unhelpful.

‘One of the best ways to overcome rut think is just to take a break, or to switch activity and return to the problem later. Sleep on it if you can. Your unconscious mind will be working away the problem more diffusely and chances are that you’ll make a breakthrough.’

School children are often encouraged to play games in order to improve their memory skills, yet astonishingly the authors also claim sometimes having a poor memory can be a good thing for learning. How come?

‘Pupils with “good” memories can often get through certain kinds of material more quickly than those without’, Alistair explains. ‘Even though they’ve spent little time on it, these super-memorisers can feel that they’ve mastered the subject. However, those with weaker memories have no choice but to spend longer with the materials. This can confer surprising benefits, because these ‘weak memorisers” have had more time to connect their knowledge to other ideas and information.

‘We used the example of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who was really slow to master the materials he needed to become a doctor, failing his entrance exam two times. But Cajal went on to become a key figure in the development of neuroscience because of his persistence and creative insights, which came from his long, patient engagement with material that others had dashed through.

‘A metaphor we like to use involves people who have “race car” brains, versus those who have “hiker” brains. People’s processing speeds and memory capacities can be very different, but there are advantages to each. If you have a hiker-type brain, you’ll be slower than the pupil with the racing car brain in getting to your destination. But if you are hiking speed, there’s every chance that you’ll notice more on the way and be more fully immersed in the journey.

We also use the metaphor of an “attentional octopus” to illustrate the idea of working memory. It only has so many arms, and if you want to hold a lot of information in them, you will need to connect some of it up, otherwise the octopus will drop it!’

 But what are this learning guru’s final words of advice as our kids head back to the classroom for the start of a new school year? ‘There’s lots that I could emphasise. A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for example. Far more so than people realise. Cramming is pretty much pointless if you really want to master a subject. Space out your learning, do your focused work in short bursts with breaks for gentler diffuse activities and in a place where you won’t be interrupted.

‘Put your phone out of sight, or at the very least on airplane mode. Use the Pomodoro Technique of timing yourself for 25 minutes of intense focused work, then have a break before returning to the task in hand. The more a parent learns about learning – the more you can help your child succeed!’

Learning How To Learn: How To Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying by Barbara Oakley, PhD and Terrence Sejnowski, PhD With Alistair McConville is published by TarcherPerigee PB RRP £13.99

Interview by Nadia Duncan

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