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Thursday, September 25, 2014

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

Is anyone surprised that I was drawn to How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey?

Go go go. Push push push. That's the mantra of the meritocracy we live in. The harder we work, as we understand it, the better we will do. After all, no one who slacked off went to the Ivy Leagues for college, right? But what if everything we thought we knew about learning wasn't accurate? What if we have the wrong idea of how we learn? Could our abilities change on a dime if we took a step back and just learned how we learn?

Bottom line up front: I have mixed feelings about this book. I tell you this so that if you are super pumped to read it or are already sold on the blurb you can head out and buy it and come back to this post later. You should do it.

My biggest frustration that came out of this book and followed it through to the end was that I am not quite sure Mr. Carey properly defined what "learning" is. Depending on how you define it, of course, as it varies slightly across theories. I teach learning from a constructivist approach, which is defined as an enduring change in knowledge. This is broad for a reason--learning takes many shapes and forms. My concern with this book is that I felt Mr. Carey equated "learning" with the fondly termed "drill and kill." Learning isn't just about remembering facts for school; it's about being able to automatize the basics so that we can use that knowledge to critically think and apply it to the real world. Just as I had an issue with a narrowly defined concept of "intelligence," I have a problem with a narrowly defined concept of "learning." Learning is about the acquisition of knowledge, not just knowing the things you need to know for school.

Automaticity is an incredibly important part of learning, and I wish it had been explored in more depth in this book; I think a lot of things that Mr. Carey questioned could have been answered by the extensive literature on automaticity. It plays a vital role in our everyday lives from something as simple as talking to something as complicated as doing statistical linear regression by hand. (Not knowing your times tables makes it take much longer!)

I study learning as a part of what I do, and so I will admit that I am a bit sensitive to anyone taking this crazy body of research and distilling it into a "how-to" book. That being said, I think Mr. Carey made some great points that I hope people who read this book listen to. Sleep--a lot, and regularly. Ease up on yourself--the more you push, the more exhausted you will be, and exhaustion never got anyone anywhere. Take a break--allow your brain to do the work it has been built to do. Take a breather--if your brain is pushing back, it's because it's tired and you should give it some space. Sometimes you really are too distracted to learn anything--take a step back. Give your brain credit--it's a fantastically fascinating organ that deserves a chance to shine.

Mr. Carey is a strong writer who tells great stories, and I do enjoy his work. He weaves fascinating webs for his readers, and you all know how much I love that. I will definitely be searching out more of his work because I enjoy his writing style.

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