Friday, December 5, 2014

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

This book review originally appeared as part of the December 4 SAIS eNewsletter

If you were to put the major influences on how our brains developed in terms of shaping the way we learn onto a timeline, the first million-or-so years would consist of two main contributors: the search for food and the unending desire to survive. It is only in the last few thousand years that more ephemeral influences have begun to impact the way our brains adapt for learning. It is only in the last few hundred years that we as a species have put an edifice of education of our own creation around what we perceive to be the way we learn. 

The problem with this, says Benedict Carey, a New York Times science reporter and author of the book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, is that this artifice of education often ignores all of the ways the brain really learns. What we’ve been taught about studying, practicing, and solving limits our ability to make learning last. Carey offers concrete strategies to capitalize on the first million years of brain development - that which made us hyper-aware of our surroundings, intent on finishing a project because of the need to accomplish a goal, or perceiving multiple factors at once to inform our next move. He accomplishes this by offering up a plethora of meta-research, experiments, personal anecdotes, and even puzzles to bring his points home. In fact, this is one of the more appealing aspects of the book - if you are looking for a relatively concise compilation of major research on the brain, memory, forgetting, and learning, How We Learn is an excellent resource. 

How We Learn, through Carey’s organization of the research, provides for the layperson an accessible and comprehensive account of the science behind learning. He divides his narrative into four main parts. In part one, he brings everyone up to speed on the biology of learning and the role that forgetting plays in how we learn. A little forgetting is good because it means you work the memory muscle when you need to recall something. Part two focuses on the retention of knowledge and builds on the memory theme by delving into the relationship of learning in different contexts to aid in retrieval of information, spaced learning or knowing when to start studying, and self examination as an active means of study. Part three discusses the best way to solve more complex problems and it is in this section of the book, where Carey’s best work lies. He does a masterful job of articulating the steps involved in the “Insight Experience” (p. 114), the power of percolation around a problem, and “interleaving” or mixed-up practice (p. 171). Finally, part four introduces the intriguing realm of perceptual learning modules as a means to “supplement experience” (p. 186) and dutifully outlines the importance of sleep in consolidating learning across modes, physical and/or mental. 

While Carey does an excellent job compiling interesting studies and organizing research on learning into categories that make sense, the outcomes of that research and how he proposes we use them practically are not really new news. For example, Carey’s insight about spacing study sessions over multiple days to make your mind work harder to recall information is, essentially, our teachers’ admonition to study a little at a time. His advice about taking a break and distracting yourself when stumped on a problem in order to capture that a-ha! moment when you return to work is essentially like taking a coffee break in the faculty room. His point about using multiple choice testing to force the brain to eliminate bad choices and “tune it” towards the right one is essentially every high school junior’s primary strategy going into the SAT. This is not to say these are not important points to keep in mind and understand as teachers, because they are. But for the most part, educators who are focused on best practices, research, and influential trends on education will not find any groundbreaking ideas in this book. However, it could be a great resource for new teachers, inquisitive and committed parents, and students who, in Carey’s words, may need to “broaden the margins” (p. xi) and give themselves a break every once in a while. 

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