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

August 29, 2014 - Comment

In the tradition of The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow comes a practical, playful, and endlessly fascinating guide to what we really know about learning and memory today—and how we can apply it to our own lives.   From an early age, it is drilled into our heads: Restlessness, distraction, and ignorance

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In the tradition of The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow comes a practical, playful, and endlessly fascinating guide to what we really know about learning and memory today—and how we can apply it to our own lives.
 
From an early age, it is drilled into our heads: Restlessness, distraction, and ignorance are the enemies of success. We’re told that learning is all self-discipline, that we must confine ourselves to designated study areas, turn off the music, and maintain a strict ritual if we want to ace that test, memorize that presentation, or nail that piano recital.
 
But what if almost everything we were told about learning is wrong? And what if there was a way to achieve more with less effort?
 
In How We Learn, award-winning science reporter Benedict Carey sifts through decades of education research and landmark studies to uncover the truth about how our brains absorb and retain information. What he discovers is that, from the moment we are born, we are all learning quickly, efficiently, and automatically; but in our zeal to systematize the process we have ignored valuable, naturally enjoyable learning tools like forgetting, sleeping, and daydreaming. Is a dedicated desk in a quiet room really the best way to study? Can altering your routine improve your recall? Are there times when distraction is good? Is repetition necessary? Carey’s search for answers to these questions yields a wealth of strategies that make learning more a part of our everyday lives—and less of a chore.
 
By road testing many of the counterintuitive techniques described in this book, Carey shows how we can flex the neural muscles that make deep learning possible. Along the way he reveals why teachers should give final exams on the first day of class, why it’s wise to interleave subjects and concepts when learning any new skill, and when it’s smarter to stay up late prepping for that presentation than to rise early for one last cram session. And if this requires some suspension of disbelief, that’s because the research defies what we’ve been told, throughout our lives, about how best to learn.
 
The brain is not like a muscle, at least not in any straightforward sense. It is something else altogether, sensitive to mood, to timing, to circadian rhythms, as well as to location and environment. It doesn’t take orders well, to put it mildly. If the brain is a learning machine, then it is an eccentric one. In How We Learn, Benedict Carey shows us how to exploit its quirks to our advantage.
 
Advance praise for How We Learn
 
“This book is a revelation. I feel as if I’ve owned a brain for fifty-four years and only now discovered the operating manual. For two centuries, psychologists and neurologists have been quietly piecing together the mysteries of mind and memory as they relate to learning and knowing. Benedict Carey serves up their most fascinating, surprising, and valuable discoveries with clarity, wit, and heart. I wish I’d read this when I was seventeen.”—Mary Roach, bestselling author of Stiff and Gulp
 
“How We Learn is as fun to read as it is important, and as much about how to live as it is about how to learn. Benedict Carey’s skills as a writer, plus his willingness to mine his own history as a student, give the book a wonderful narrative quality that makes it all the more accessible—and all the more effective as a tutorial.”—Robert A. Bjork, Distinguished Research Professor, Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles

Comments

Kevin L. Nenstiel "omnivore" says:

Everything You Think You Know About Learning Is Wrong Consider all the advice your teachers, parents, tutors, and friends gave when you struggled in school. “Just concentrate.” “Eliminate distractions.” “Practice, practice, until you get it right.” “Pick a spot to do your studying.” “Get your homework done first; go out and play later.” How did those suggestions work for you? Probably as well as they did for me. Surely some scientist somewhere has researched better ways to learn.Science journalist Benedict Carey admits early that we still don’t understand how the human brain makes new connections. The neural processes that allow our minds to process information and draw meaningful conclusions remain shrouded in mystery. But we have substantial evidence that certain practices yield significant benefits. Some results confirm what your Momma told you years ago. Others may take you by surprise.Early researchers in learning theory made important discoveries about human mental limitations. But these discoveries…

Evelyn Uyemura says:

Deserves a Wide Reading I keep up fairly well with research in the field of psychology and learning in particular, so much of this information was not entirely new and surprising to me, but Benedict Carey does a great job of pulling a lot of different research together and presenting it a practical way. This is more a guide to what is known than a self-help book, but it will definitely be of use both to teachers and students who want to understand how to study more effectively.A couple of take-aways–half-forgetting and then re-learning, especially by trying to remember, make the thing you are trying to learn really stick. So as a teacher, when I start class on Monday and ask students to recall what it was we were working on last Friday, that is not just review–that is learning. It would be best, I suppose, if instead of asking the whole class and letting one or two students do the hard work, I had everyone try their best to write down what the remember about passive voice or the…

Carol Kean "Carol K" says:

The intro to this book is great. The synopsis summed up about all I needed … The intro to this book is great. The synopsis summed up about all I needed to know. The rest was torture. Like the story about the author posing questions to a room full of kids. “I thought of another well-known insight problem,” he tells us:SEQUENC_”Your only instruction is to complete the sequence using any letter than E.”Any letter. Not letters. Letter, as in only, so that eliminates sequenc-ing. Okay, I give up. What is the answer to this “well know” insight problem?HE NEVER TELLS US!So I have to waste my time googling the answer. And the answer makes no sense at all: “One approach is to go with the letter ‘F’ – that way, the line next to the ‘C’ converts the ‘F’ into an ‘E’, and thus you get the word SEQUENCE.” Uh…. WHAT?? I’d have sworn the instructions were to REPLACE that _ line. It just…it just…arrrrghhh.My mother…

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