Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How We Learn: A Book that Understands the Research and Brings it to the Masses

There's a lot of research out there on the theory of learning, so you'd think we'd all know the tricks by now. Unfortunately, due to the relative inaccessibility of academic research by the general public, this isn't the case. Academic writing, when you can find it without needing to shell out a lot of money, isn't exactly designed for consumption by the everyday person (and I say this having been an academic).

Luckily for us, Benedict Carey, a long-time science journalist, has done the work of distilling key learnings (pun intended) about learning science (etc) from the literature. He shares some very practical results in How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. Even better, he does it in a way we can all understand.

The book climbs the ladder of abstraction of the mind. It begins with some basic neuroscience theory, explaining how the brain works. It then goes through some of the best techniques to remember things, shares ideas behind effective problem solving, and finally discusses how learning happens away from the conscious mind.

There are a few themes that are threaded throughout the book. For example, some level of difficulty is desired, such as forcing yourself to struggle to remember things through self-testing. Another theme is the power and importance of forgetting:
“Compared to some kind of system in which out-of-date memories were to be overwritten or erased,” Bjork writes, “having such memories become inaccessible but remain in storage has important advantages. Because those memories are inaccessible, they don’t interfere with current information and procedures. But because they remain in memory they—at least under certain circumstances—be relearned.” 
Thus, forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills and to the preservation and reacquisition of old ones.
Other important ideas include the role of context in learning (it's best to switch it up!), why testing is much more important than just for assigning grades, and how to know when to stop working on something for a while to let it percolate.

Carey walks through all of these ideas by telling the stories of the researchers who discovered the various principles, and how their ideas can be put into practical use by us today. If you're looking for just the quick and dirty list of what to do to improve your learning, this probably isn't the book for you. Such a list is there at the end, but you might find reading the whole book inefficient. On the other hand, if you like to have ideas reinforced several times and enjoy hearing about the history behind them in an engaging way, I highly recommend this book!