Ep 145: How To Raise A Better Learner

Dr. Barbara Oakley, author of Uncommon Sense Teaching, delivers the best ways to get ahead in academics based on her research in education, neuroscience, and teaching. Is memorizing helpful or a waste of time? Who can procrastinate and get away with it? How can we help our teens be better learners?

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Full show notes

Getting teens to sit down and practice math can feel impossible. We go around in circles trying to convince them to practice the algebra portion of the SAT, or nag them after school to finish their calculus homework before turning on the Xbox. No matter how many times we assure them that math skills are critical to a successful life, they just don’t seem to care! We can lead them to water, but we just can’t make them drink.

According to today’s guest, the secret to motivating math-reluctant teens might lie in cognitive science. In her recent work, she’s discovered and documented some fascinating findings about the complexities of the human mind. Specifically, she's gained some unique insights on the way humans learn. She’s here to tell parents how they can help kids not only master STEM material–but have fun doing it!

Her name is Barbara Oakley and she’s the author of both the bestselling A Mind For Numbers and the brand new Uncommon Sense: Teaching Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn. Although she’s now a professor of engineering at Rochester College, she was once a student who struggled in science and math. When one of her own students prompted her to think critically about how she became a whiz at crunching numbers, she decided to dive into the neuroscience of learning to figure out how students can master math, even if they tend to lag behind.

In our interview, we’re discussing the difference between long term memory and working memory, and sharing how understanding these systems in our minds can help us become better learners. We’re also chatting about the importance of practice and how you can get kids to actually do it! In addition, we’re breaking down misconceptions about procrastination and how to motivate a teen who’s more interested in video games than cracking open the books.

Why Memory Matters

When we think about the role memory plays in academics, we typically think about memorizing enough material to pass a test or give a presentation. But what about the memory we need to complete a word problem in just a few minutes? Or to quickly recite a phone number? In the episode, Barbara defines the difference between the two distinct types of memory: long term memory and working memory.

Long term memory is the stuff we recall, well, long term! This includes everything from remembering how to speak English to being able to get home without a GPS. Different but equally important is working memory, or how much information we can store and manipulate over a short period. For example, when we’re working on an equation, we've got to hold the numbers in our head long enough to finish it. This is where our working memory comes in. Without this function of our mind, we wouldn’t be able to make it through the day!

To truly get the hang of mathematics, a mastery of the working memory is invaluable, but not at all required, says Barbara. In fact, those students with smaller or less efficient working memories can actually approach math from a different angle, making them math experts with a unique perspective. In the episode, Barbara explains how you can help a teen who’s been pigeonholed as “bad at math” learn to compute like Einstein.

Spoiler alert: the answer mostly lies in practice. But teens don’t really want to do that, do they? So how can we convince them to get in some geometry repetition instead of picking up the ipad and playing Candy Crush all afternoon?

The Power of Practice

We know that practice is extremely valuable when it comes to learning math, but we struggle endlessly to get kids to actually do the work. Why is getting kids to figure out equations as difficult as pulling teeth?

To explain, Barbara contrasts learning math to learning to ride a bike. When kids are trying to get the hang of biking, they can see other kids riding down the street, popping wheelies and having a grand ol’ time. This motivates them to push through the pain of falling and flailing to become expert bike operators.

Being good at math can be just as fulfilling as riding a bike, but it’s rare that teens catch a glimpse of someone sitting in front of a calculator and think “I wish I could do that!” In the episode, Barbara covers how parents can help teens get past that “falling” stage when it comes to mastering math.

In addition, practice can help bridge the gender gap when it comes to STEM subjects. Barbara breaks down why it is that boys are seen as being naturally good at math, while girls are viewed as strong in social sciences–even though research shows there is absolutely no difference in math ability between the sexes. By pushing girls to practice math instead of leading them away from it, we can help them overcome the discouragement they might be facing from teachers or society at large.

So if you’re having your teen do extra math problems in the summer or signing them up for SAT prep classes, you might be helping them more than you think, says Barbara. In our talk, Barbara dives deeper into motivating teens to hit the math books by dissecting a practice known as the Pomodoro method.

A Unique Approach to Focus

Your teen comes home after school, has a snack...and then flips on some Netflix. They know they have statistics homework to get cracking on, but they’re not really interested in that right now. Next thing they know, it’s ten pm, and they haven’t even glanced at their textbook. Then they try to cram all that information late at night to no avail. How can we help teens break this destructive cycle of procrastination?

To start, Barbara breaks down the misconception that procrastination is effective. Although waiting all day can help you process information and brainstorm ideas for a prompt, procrastination definitely does not come in handy when it comes to learning new things. The more we put studying off and then try to squish it all in before a deadline, the more we find ourselves hitting walls and struggling to remember material.

In order to curb procrastination, Barbara introduces the concept of a “Pomodoro” in our interview. This consists of focusing for twenty five minutes, taking a five minute break to do something rewarding, then going back to the task at hand.

Barbara explains how this is super effective for helping distractible teens focus, because it allows the brain to transfer information from the working memory to the long term while also providing teens with time to chill and breathe. In our talk, Barbara and I delve into the different types of learning in order to explain why this Pomodoro method might be the secret to success for your teen.

In the Episode...

Barbara shares endless fascinating information about how our mind’s function in this week’s interview. In addition to the topics mentioned above, we discuss:
  • How our education system is failing to adapt to new findings
  • Why a little bit of stress can boost learning
  • How testosterone affects learning capacity
  • Why sleep is so important for memorization
  • How the brain utilizes different networks to store information
If you enjoyed today’s episode, you can find more of Barbara’s work at Barbaraoakley.com and grab her books wherever books are sold. Don't forget to share and subscribe, and we’ll see you next week.

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Creators and Guests

Ep 145: How To Raise A Better Learner
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