Articles, Blog

Learning how to learn | Barbara Oakley | TEDxOaklandUniversity

September 12, 2019


Translator: Tijana Mihajlović
Reviewer: Mile Živković I grew up moving all over the place. By the time I’d hit 10th grade,
I’d lived in 10 different places. Math is extraordinarily sequential. By the time I’d hit 3rd grade,
I’d fallen off the math bandwagon. Basically, I flunked my way through elementary, middle,
and high school math and science. So it’s a little strange looking back now because today
I am a professor of engineering and I’m passionate about my job. One day, one of my students
found out about my past, and he asked me, “How did you do it?
How did you change your brain?” And I thought, you know,
“How did I do it?” I mean, here I was, this little kid, and I just loved language and culture, and that’s all I wanted
to learn when I grew up, but I didn’t have the money
to go to college, so I enlisted in the army
right out of high school to learn a language. You can see me there,
looking very nervous, about to throw a grenade. (Laughter) And I did learn a language. I’d learned Russian, and I ended up working out
on Soviet trawlers, up on the Bering Sea, as a Russian translator. So, I just love adventure
and getting new perspectives. So I also ended up in Antarctica,
at the South Pole Station. That’s where I ended up
meeting my husband. So I always say – (Laughter) I had to go to the end of the Earth
to meet that man. (Laughter) But I begin to realize something, though. I was doing all these adventures
and seeing these new perspectives, but somehow they were always external. They weren’t internal;
I wasn’t changing inside. When I’d worked in the military, I worked with all these
West Point engineers, and they had these powerful techniques
for problem solving. I thought, you know – I’d look sometimes
at what they were doing, and they had these calculus
and physics books, and it looked like hieroglyphics to me. But I thought, “What if I
could get those ideas?” What if I could learn that language?” I mean, the world’s evolving. Language and culture are important, but math, and science, and technology
are important, too. What if I could learn these new ideas and add them to the ideas
I already knew and loved? So, when I got out
of the military, at age 26, I decided to try and change my brain. It wasn’t easy. But if I knew then what I know now
about how to learn, I could have learned much more easily
and much more effectively. So, several years ago, as I begin trying to answer that student’s question,
“How did I change my brain?”, I begin reaching out to top professors
from around the world, people who not only had knowledge
of their difficult areas of expertise, but also who could teach effectively. And I asked them. I said, “How did you learn? And how do you teach,
so others could learn?” What I found was the way they learned, and the way they taught was often similar
to the way I learned and I taught. It was almost like this kind
of shared fraternal handshake. But we often didn’t know
why we did what we did. So I begin researching neuroscience
and cognitive psychology, and reaching out to talk
to top experts of those fields. Here is what I found,
the keys to learning effectively. As we know, the brain
is enormously complex. But we can simplify its operation
into two fundamentally different modes. The first is just what I’ll call
the focus mode. The focus mode
is just like it sounds like: you turn your attention to something
and boom! It’s on. But the second mode is a little different. It’s a relaxed set of neural states
that I’ll call the diffuse mode. It’s a number of resting states. So it seems that, when you’re learning, you’re going back and forth
between these two different modes. How can we better understand these modes? Through analogy. What we’re going to use
is a pinball machine analogy. You all know how pinballs work. You just pull back on a plunger, and the ball goes boinking out
and bounces around on the rubber bumpers, and that’s how you get points. What we’re going to do is
we’re going to take this pinball and we’re going to put it
right on your brain. So, there it is. There’s the pinball machine on your brain. If you look, this is the analogy
for the focus mode. When you’re learning,
you’re often thinking tightly, as you’re focusing on something. It involves thoughts
you’re somewhat familiar with, perhaps historical patterns, or you’re familiar
with the multiplication table. So you think a thought, and it takes off,
and moves along smoothly, pretty much along the pathways
that you’ve already laid. But what if the thought you’re thinking is actually a new thought,
a new concept, a new technique that you’ve never thought of before? Well, that’s symbolized
by this new pattern towards the bottom
of the pinball machine metaphor. To get to this new place, I mean,
at least sort of metaphorically speaking, look at all the rubber bumpers
that are in the way. How can you even get there? You need a different way of thinking,
a new perspective in a sense, and that’s provided here
by the diffuse mode. Look at how far apart
those rubber bumpers are from one another. When you think a thought, it takes off,
and it can range very widely, as you’re attempting
to come up with some new ideas. So, you can’t do that careful,
focused thinking that you can in the focus mode, but you can, at least,
get to the place you need to be in to grapple with these new ideas. The bottom line for all of us
out of this is this: when you’re learning, you want to go back and forth
between these modes, and if you find yourself,
as you’re focusing in on something, trying to learn a new concept
or solve a problem, and you get stuck, you want to turn your attention
away from that problem and allow the diffuse modes,
those resting states, to do their work in the background. How can we actually use
these ideas in real life? If you look at this guy right here,
he was Salvador Dali, one of the most brilliant
surrealist painters of the 20th century. Dali was the very definition
of a wild and crazy guy. You can see him there. He’s got his pet, Ocelot Babu. What Dali used to do
when he was kind of stuck as he was solving some problem
related to his painting was he’d sit down
and he’d relax in a chair, and he’d have keys in his hands. He’d hold those keys, and he’d relax,
kind of letting his brain noodling away. Just as he’d relax so much
that he’d fall asleep, the keys would fall from his hands,
the clatter would wake him up, and off you go: he’d take those ideas from the diffuse mode
over to the focus mode, where he could work with them, refine them, and use them
for his painting. You might think, “That’s great!
It’s good for an artist. But I’m an engineer. So how can I use these ideas?” If you see this guy right here,
he was Thomas Edison, one of the most brilliant
inventors in history. What Edison used to like to do,
at least according to legend, he’d sit in a chair
with ball bearings in his hand. He’d relax away, kind of thinking
about the problem, loosely, that he was trying to solve
related to his inventions, relaxing. Just as he’d fall asleep, the ball bearings
would fall from his hands, and off you go: he’d be woken up, and he’d take those ideas
from the diffuse mode back into the focus mode. He’d use them to refine
and finish his inventions. The bottom line for all of us
out of this is this: whenever you’re sitting down to solve a new problem
or analyze a new idea, even if millions of other people
have thought the same thoughts, or solved the same problems, for you, it’s just as creative as it was for famous people
like Dali and Edison, and you want to use
some of these creative approaches. But you might say to me,
“Yeah, but I’ve got a problem, though. You know, I just love to procrastinate. This back and forth stuff is great,
but I don’t have time. I cram at the last minute.
That’s just me.” So, let’s talk just a little bit
about procrastination. What seems to happen
when you procrastinate is this: you look at something
you’d really rather not do, and you actually feel a physical pain in the part of your brain
that analyzes pain. So, there are two ways
that you can handle this. The first way is you can just
kind of keep working a way through it. And research has shown that within a few minutes
it actually will disappear. But the second way is you just turn
your attention away, and guess what? You feel better, right, right away. (Laughter) So, you do this once, you do this twice;
it’s just not that big a deal. But you do this very often,
and it’s actually like an addiction. It can really cause problems
in how you lead your life. So, how can you handle it? A very simple way:
using the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro technique, as it turns out,
all you need to do is you get a timer. Any timer will do. Then you just take it
and set it for 25 minutes, and make sure
everything else is turned off – so, no instant messengers,
nothing like that – and you work with focused
attention for 25 minutes. Anybody can do 25 minutes,
virtually anyone. When you’re done, you do something fun; just a little bit,
a few minutes of relaxed fun. What this seems to do is this: you are enhancing,
you’re practicing in some sense your ability to have focused attention, and you’re also practicing
your ability to relax a little bit. Now you understand that relaxation is also an important part
of the learning process; there are things going on
in the background. The only thing is this:
when you do the Pomodoro, you want to make sure
that you don’t sit there and say, “I’m going to do
my entire homework set in these 25 minutes.” No. You just sit and say, “I’m going to work
with focused attention for 25 minutes”, and that’s the key. Students sometimes make the mistake of thinking that some
of their absolute best traits are their worst traits. What do I mean by this? Let’s take the idea of memory. Let’s say that you have
a poor working memory. You can’t seem to hold things
in mind very well. You watch these other students and they’re able to grasp all these ideas
and kind of manipulate them, but you can’t. Well, what this means is:
surprisingly, you are more creative. Because you can’t hold
these ideas in mind so tightly, other ideas are often creeping in. If you have problems with the tension, you’re always kind of diverting off
into some other idea, it’s similar: you are often more creative, because these new ideas
are slipping in instead. There’s another thing,
and that’s slow thinking. Some students compare
themselves to other students and say, “You know,
I’m really slow by comparison. These other students,
they are like race car drivers; they go past me so fast.” But, think of yourself as a hiker. Yes, a race car driver gets there
much faster than you ever can, but a hiker has a completely
different experience. A hiker can smell the pine air,
they can reach out, touch the leaves, they see the rabbit trails. In many ways, your experiences
are deeper and more profound, and you don’t jump to conclusions. So if you are a slower thinker, yes, you may have to work harder
in order to grasp the materials, but the trade-offs in many cases
are well worth it; you gain solid mastery
of what you’re studying. So, there is something called
“illusions of competence in learning”. What this means
is you can study all day long and you can be spinning your wheels because you’re not using
effective study techniques. There is such a thing as test anxiety, but in many cases, surprisingly many, it arises because you’ve just come
face to face with the scary bear, (Laughter) and that is that you have just learned
that you are not a master of the material. Researchers, with both
critters and people, are finding powerful insights
into how we can learn most effectively. One of those ways
is simply through exercise. Exercise within a matter of a few days can increase our ability
to both learn and to remember, and researchers
are beginning to understand the neurophysiological pathways
that allow this to occur. Tests. Tests are the best. Test yourself all the time.
Give yourself little mini tests. Make flash cards,
even in math and science, mix them up, study them
in different places, and this brings me to homework. When you do a homework problem,
never just work at once and put it away. Would you ever sing a song once
and think you knew that song? No. Test yourself, work that homework problem
several times over several days until the solution flows
like a song from your mind. Recall. When you’re looking at a page as you’re trying to learn
something in a book, people’s tendency is to highlight, right? There’s something about the motion
of the pen on a page that makes you think
that it’s actually going into your brain, but it often isn’t. Often times, people will just reread, but that too is simply
spinning your wheels. The most effective technique
is simply to look at a page, look away, and see what you can recall. Doing this, as it seems,
helps build profound neural hooks that help enhance your
understanding of the material. And finally, don’t be fooled
by the erroneous idea that understanding alone is enough
to build the mastery of the material. Understanding is truly important, but only when combined
with practice and repetition in a variety of circumstances can you truly gain mastery
over what you’re learning. So, in closing, I would like to say that learning how to learn is the most powerful tool
you can ever grasp. Don’t just follow your passions; broaden your passions, and your life
will be enriched beyond measure. (Applause)

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