How We Learn: When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey
This book struck a chord with me in the Introduction. The analogy of climbing a rock face to reach the smart kids at the top, and continuing the climb for years for fear of falling, brought me back to my memories of Middle and High School. The images and feelings stirred up were so strong, I chose to use this metaphor to frame a Story of Self that I used when I facilitated a discussion for a group of school leadership apprentices.
We all have ideas that have been drilled into us about the best conditions for learning - a quiet place where you can study without distraction for an extended time is a very common one. Why do we take these ideas and preach them as gospel in our classrooms? When did we actually read and review research on the human brain, learning, and the science of making connections? I know I didn't do any of that prior to my teaching. I taught in the same way I was taught. I don't know why I expected my early teaching years to be different when I was doing everything the same way it was done to me.
If teachers are lucky, they have leaders that will let them challenge the status quo and accepted positions on issues like learning, studying, homework. This book is one step in the direction of clearing the clutter and non-sense ideas that get perpetuated about how the brain connects and stores information. Here are some ideas from this book that stood out for me...
- "It's more than an interpreter. It's a story maker."
- Our brain makes connections with stories. It connects new information to old information. It connects us to each other.
- "The brain does not store facts, ideas, and experiences like a computer does, as a file that is clicked open, always displaying the identical image. It embeds them in networks of perceptions, facts, and thoughts, slightly different combinations of which bubble up each time. And that just retrieved memory does not overwrite the previous one but intertwines and overlaps with it."
- "The first [point from the research] is that our assumptions about learning are suspect, if not wrong. Having something going on in the study environment, like music, is better than nothing (so much for the sanctity of the quiet study room). The second point is that the experience of studying has more dimensions than we notice, some of which can have an impact on retention."
- "Daniel Willingham, a leading authority on the application of learning techniques in classrooms, advises his own students, when they're reviewing for an exam, not to work straight from their notes. 'I tell them to put the notes aside and create an entirely new outline, reorganizing the material,' he told me. 'It forces you to think about the material again, and in a different way.'"
- I read Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School?, but it has been too long since turning those Kindle pages on that one. I need to re=read and re-reflect. Look for this down the line.
- I was taught for years to help students create a note-taking system that they could carry home, and this system was pushed across the entire school. All of our students were learning and studying in only one format. Hindsight...
- "Since we cannot predict the context in which we'll have to perform, we're better off varying the circumstances in which we prepare."
- Once you read it, and the research around varying your study environment, and you think about things you learn and remember from your day, you realize there is a story from that learning moment coupled with so many aspects of the experience (where you were, the amount of light, a noise/song, a smell, a person). And being able to reconstruct meaning and learning in varying circumstances is vital to students' success. This might be a great way to combat test anxiety. Let them master the material in a variety of settings and forms so they can use the information in any setting, including a test. To be clear, I am not a fan of standardized testing, but it is part of the world in which I live.
- "For math or spatial problems, ...people benefit from any of these three [forms of incubation break - relaxation, mild activity, highly engaging activity]; it doesn't seem to matter which you choose. For linguistic problems, ...breaks consisting of mild activity--video games, solitaire, TV--seem to work best."
- "They also emphasized that people don't benefit from an incubation break unless they have reached an impasse. Their definition of 'impasse' is not precise, but most of us know the difference between a speed bump and a brick wall. Here's what matters: Knock off and play a videogame too soon and you get nothing."
- This was clarified at one point to say that when you need to focus, like during a lecture, distractions are a bad thing. But if you're stuck trying to problem solve, don't force yourself to solve it. Take a break and return to the problem later. The brain needs to make some connections during the downtime. When thinking about my growing Instructional Vision, it also means that breaks and distractions during the creative process are vital to student learning.
- "By interrupting work [on a goal] at an important and difficult moment..."
- We can activate our brains to want to complete the goal. This brings to my mind the story of a student, Brian, from High Tech High, in the film Most Likely To Succeed. Brian did not complete his design project within the allotted time, but he continued to work on this project, on his own time after school, and during the Summer, until he got it working. It was a powerful moment in the film. This is also likely at work in NuVu Innovation Studio where the students have only 2 weeks to complete a project. They are not likely to forget their work.
- There is an section of the chapter on "Quitting Before You're Ahead" that describes a teacher that changed her curriculum to allow more "percolation" time for her students. I really enjoyed this and it has me thinking about ways to reframe long term research projects.
- "Don't practice until you get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong."
- I love this line, and I am trying to think in this way as I practice Japanese in preparation for my trip in February. Fingers crossed I get some basic knowledge in mind so I don't get it wrong.
- "The mixing of items, skills, or concepts during practice, over the longer term, seems to help us... The hardest part is abandoning our primal faith in repetition."
- I think about what I read in Jo Boaler's Mathematical Mindsets and how drill and kill math does not help a students choose the right mathematic strategy when presented with a unique situation. Students need to learn to think flexibly.