Monday, September 8, 2014

The New Neuroscience of School

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

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 circumscribed our understanding, because they focused new research on blind alleys: research on forgetting, for instance, inadvertently precluded research into positive memory. Carey’s historical panorama demonstrates how mistaken notions planted themselves in our learning expectations, and how the sea change in learning and neurology over the last generation offers massive reversals to these false boundaries.

The conventional wisdom about knuckling down, avoiding distractions, and letting one task absorb you with single-minded ferocity, Carey writes, arises not from academia, but from Puritan religious devotion. What works for prayer doesn’t necessarily work for learning. Carey describes, with surprising specificity, the educational benefits of short-segment learning, occasional diversions, and a multi-subject curriculum. He even advocates for the educational benefits of afternoon naps.

Some of these “discoveries” will surprise nobody who follows science news. Recent discoveries regarding sleep’s value in the cognitive process have gotten prime media coverage. But amid popular hysteria over social media, Carey’s discoveries about the educational value of occasional Facebook and Twitter time, and other electronic distractions, seem downright shocking. The key, Carey says, isn’t whether we use social media ever; it’s how our usage relates to other activities.

Humans learn best under conditions of stress, apparently. In my teaching days, I often tried to ease student tensions, playing the “you can do it” coach, helping students master certain skills before commencing onto others. But Carey reveals that leaving projects incomplete heightens our ability to process new information and collect evidence. Switching up practice before mastering a skill actually gives us more real-world proficiency. Softening learning’s edges helps nobody.

Carey’s discoveries blatantly upend ideas we often consider “common sense.” Imagine the common myth of the lone genius, hunched over the same desk daily, repeatedly conjugating Latin verbs until complete mastery dawns. Now discard that myth, because its two most important components, geographical fixity and single-minded repetition, are flat damn wrong. We learn best, Carey demonstrates, by varying our study locations and diversifying our practice regimes.

Similarly, concepts our parents taught us to avoid, we should actually embrace. While abandoning incomplete projects dooms them to failure, taking an afternoon away, even with important work waiting, opens our minds to new opportunities. Likewise, testing, which we usually do at the end of learning (and which we revile as Common Core polarizes parents), actually has important benefits if we test students (or ourselves) at the beginning of learning.

Despite his fondness for the newest research, Carey emphasizes how certain time-honored techniques actually foster better learning. I grew up among the final generation widely expected to memorize classic literature, like Hamlet’s soliloquies or the Gettysburg Address, so Carey’s explication of memorization hit me hard. Memorizing classic literature, or even newly composed content, forces learners to internalize, not just the words, but the mental processes which made those words possible.

Nor does Carey simply tell us what other researchers have already discovered. He situates each discovery in a context of application. He offers varying techniques by which children and their parents, professional teachers, and adult learners can utilize these discoveries. These include mental puzzles he posits, but leaves unsolved, and lessons learned during his own adult attempts to master Spanish guitar. Carey brings both content and verve to these recommendations.

Carey admits early, and repeats often, that gaps in our knowledge of human learning exceed what we actually know. So much awaits discovery; the human mind remains uncharted territory, and the narrative we’ve devised to link together what we do know will certainly get revised. Yet even incomplete, Carey’s exposé of human learning capacity will force massive, rapid re-evaluation of our prejudices, and hopefully, wider distribution of wisdom.

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