Ep 145: How To Raise A Better Learner

Episode Summary

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 a waste of time? Who can procrastinate and get away with it? How can we help our teens be better learners?

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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.

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Remind your teen progress is happening, it’s just slow:

“Those little bits of daily practice, you know, it just seems like, ‘Am I having any effect at all?’ And the fact of the matter is, you are. It’s just a very slow, long process.”

Barbara Oakley

2. Introduce the idea of Pomodoro (timers):

(Members Only)

3. When you want your teen to try something new:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Education and how people learn is a really interesting area to study. What got you interested in that and why do you think that it’s so important for people to know about?

Barbara: So, I got into education and learning because I was a professor of engineering and I was teaching my classes, and one of my students found out about my sordid past as a terrible, terrible student, particularly in math and science while I was growing up. And he asked me how I changed my brain, and I thought about it. I remember I wrote him a little email. Then I thought, “You know, I think there’s more than just an email in this.”

Barbara: I’m always interested in just sort of looking at questions and seeing if I can answer them and see where the facts actually lead me. And so, because of that, I’d been interested in various questions and I had spent a number of years, even though I’m a professor of engineering, kind of digging around in the neuroscientific and cognitive psychology literature, and so I had a pretty good feel for what was going on in those fields. I mean, of course, I’m not a top-notch expert in them, but at the same time, if you know how to do research, which professors of engineering are supposed to be able to do, you at least know how to sift through and find out not only where the most interesting things are happening and what is happening, but also, if you’re looking at these fields coming at it from a completely different field, that meant that I could look with a very fresh perspective on these fields. And what’s interesting is if you had grown up being trained in those disciplines, it’s really hard for you to see where the gaps are and where.

Barbara: But anyway, so he asked me this question and I thought, “Oh, you know, I like to write books. I like to get my head around a problem.” So, I spent several years working on a book called A Mind for Numbers. It was meant to be a book about how to do better when you’re studying in STEM disciplines. I mean, science, technology, engineering, and math.

Barbara: But while I was writing this book, it really came out that this is actually a general book on learning. And indeed, my background is it started out in linguistics. I enlisted in the army right out of high school, and went to the Defense Language Institute, and spent my first years out of high school intensely studying and learning Russian. I ended up working as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers. And so, when I have a bit of wine, it all comes back, and I can swear quite nicely.

Barbara: But anyway, that’s what got me started, and I think what really got me interested in this whole educational area was the fact that some fresh perspectives were needed. And especially working with my colleague, Terrence Sejnowski, who is one of the world’s leading experts, not only in neuroscience but in artificial intelligence, it’s become clear to both of us that a lot of the great and innovative new breakthroughs that we are discovering about how we learn from the research in neuroscience, as well as cognitive psychology, is simply not being used or implemented or taken it in by educators who, bless their hearts, they have their own vested interest in how they have been trained. And so, it’s really hard to give all of that training up or to shift directions, particularly if what you have long been taught is actually completely incorrect. You’d rather just say, “No, no, no, I’m right. I’m right. I’m right.” And so, anyway, it’s been a very, very interesting journey.

Andy: One thing that you make a big deal about in this book is working memory and also sort of the differences between working memory and long-term memory. And you have this graph in here that I thought was really fascinating about working memory capacity changing with age, and it looks like it sort of reaches its maximum around the middle of the teenage years, which I thought was pretty interesting because a lot of times they’re telling us how immature teenagers’ brains are. And so, here’s a graph that shows at least one area of the brain that’s gets pretty mature around the teenage years. So, talk to me about working memory capacity. Why is it such a important thing and such a theme throughout your book, and what the parents need to know about it?

Barbara: Oh, very good question. So, that graph is thanks to Susan Gathercole and her colleagues. And it’s an interesting idea that I think is important for us all to know is so this graph shows how working memory increases as you mature. I should step back and explain what is working memory. Working memory is what you can hold temporarily in your prefrontal cortex. So, it’s like what you can hold temporarily in mind and manipulate too. So, if I asked you to multiply 77 times 22, you probably could hold it in your working memory, and… Well, if I said 77 times 20, you could probably do it pretty easily or with some thinking in your head. And what you’re doing is you’re holding the 70, you’re holding the 20 and you’re manipulating those numbers a little bit. So, short-term memory is just, you remember the 70, you remember the 20. Working memory is like short-term memory, but you’re manipulating things a little bit.

Barbara: But in any case, we often, sort of a shorthand, we say working memory can hold about four pieces of information in mind. And so, people often say, “Well, what do you mean by a piece of information?”

Andy: Yeah, exactly.

Barbara: Since it could be a lot of different things, it’s a little hard to quantify, but you can kind of think of it as like four concepts or four balls of information or four like… Let’s say you’ve memorized and you can play a short piece on the piano. So, you can bring that into mind, that little short set of chords into mind as one piece, and then maybe you can connect it to another piece that would go along.

Barbara: The simplest way to think of it is as I give you the numbers 4, 7, 2, 3, 5. Remember it. You’re remembering it in sort of your working memory. It falls out of your working memory later on, and you can remember longer numbers than… The average person can hold four pieces of information, but you can remember more than four numbers because you can group them together in your mind so that it’s like 42, 57, 35, sort of like that.

Barbara: So, most people can hold four pieces of information. A higher capacity working memory, you can hold maybe 10 or 20. I mean, there are people who are truly exceptional. For example, my colleague, Terry Sejnowski’s probably got a working memory capacity like a zoo. I mean, he can hold the lot in mind as he’s manipulating this information. But at the same time, there are people like me who have lesser capacity working memories. I would guess that my working memory capacity is like I can hold three pieces of information. If I have not had my coffee, I am holding [inaudible 00:09:10], I can maybe hold one piece of information. So, you can hold this information in mind and people often think, “I want to be that person with the super high capacity working memory.”

Andy: Yeah, that sounds great. Give me the 20!

Barbara: Yeah, because it makes it easier for you to put sets of links or make connections in long-term memory. In other words, it helps you to remember things, and you can grab more things and hold them in mind. Let’s say you have this teacher and she’s going, “Well, there’s this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this,” the person with high capacity working memory would be going, “Yeah, bring it on. I’ve got it all in mind.” But a person like me is just madly, scrambling to write notes to try to put it together in my own mind later on. But here’s the trick. The trick is that people with lower capacity working memory, research has shown they can be more creative than those with higher capacity working memory.

Andy: Woah.

Barbara: And part of it is like you work really hard to get something in working memory. You got it. You got it. Ooh, shiny. Something distracts you, and something falls out of your working memory. But when something falls out, something else comes in, and that is where the creativity comes from. More than that, people often don’t realize that working memory, it’s what you’re holding temporarily in mind, but you can kind of artificially expand working memory. So, the number of items you can hold in your mind is limited on average to like four pieces of information. But if you’ve already learned a lot about a specific topic, over that topic, it’s the equivalent of you’ve got a bigger working memory capacity. It doesn’t transfer to other things, but at least on that topic. So, for example, if I asked you to remember, let’s see, [speaking Russian], you’d probably not be able to remember it very easily.

Andy: That’s going to be tough, yeah.

Barbara: But if I told you, “I’d like you to remember the phrase, you know too much, it’s time to kill you,” which is what the Russians used to tell me in good fun, you would easily be able to remember that phrase, and it’s because you have a really good background in English and not in Russian.

Barbara: Whatever you’re learning, if you know a lot about it already, it can help you seem to have a bigger working memory about that topic. So, working memory and long-term memory kind of have this funny, dancing relationship with one another. So, let’s relate this back to parents or adolescents. Dependent on the student’s working memory capacity, different ways of teaching are going to be more effective.

Andy: Ah, interesting.

Barbara: So, what that means is that if you have a child or a teenager with a larger working memory capacity, they can probably grasp fairly quickly what you’re talking about. If they have a lesser capacity working memory, you often have to kind of build it in chunks for them to be able to climb up and kind of grasp this chunk, oh, okay, and then this one, and they need to practice more. So, remember though, that that person with lesser capacity working memory can actually, in the long-term with extra practice, do even better and be even more creative than the person with the higher capacity working memory.

Barbara: So, for example, Nobel prize-winning economist, Friedrich Hayek, from all the evidence, he did not have a very big working memory capacity at all. He really struggled, and in fact, he wrote a paper about sort of people who learn really fast, and people like him who really have to struggle and fill in the gaps and they can’t remember things. But what he said was, “Because I went so slowly, I could see the gaps that the smart or the high capacity working memory people just jumped right over.” So, having the patience to do more practice can really… I mean, your student, the person you’re mentoring is going to be helped by a lot more practice if they have a lower capacity working memory. So, then the question becomes, well, how do I motivate? How do I get my kid to want to practice more?

Andy: Right.

Barbara: So, that’s the $64 million question. So, I have to kind of relate what happened with our own daughters. Now, sadly, you can look at virtually any discipline there is, and I don’t know whether it’s learning to play a musical instrument, learning how to do a sport, learning a foreign language, learning dance, you name it, practice is an important part of becoming an expert in those, and a lot of drill. So, interleaved drill where you’re giving varieties. You’re not just repeating the same old thing. The sad thing is that education in math, reform educators have somehow got this idea that practice in math kills creativity,, and kills students’ desire and interest in learning. Nothing could be further from the truth. I mean, if you look at it super superficially, you can say, “Oh yeah, yeah, they had to practice. And they didn’t like it that day.” But every discipline, everything you learn requires some practice. And sometimes, it’s kind of boring.

Andy: You’re not always going to like it, yeah.

Barbara: That’s right. And so, it’s really, it’s doing an exceptional disservice to students to say, “Oh, that practice, no, no, you don’t need practice,” because all of the neuroscientific evidence is in. You need practice, whatever you’re learning. Now, the challenge is that when you’re learning something like how to ride a bicycle, well, you need to practice to kind of get it all figured out how to do it, but you can actually see other kids riding around on their bicycles, and it’s a big motivator, even though practice is painful. You fall off your bike. At first, it’s just no fun at all, but you can see other kids riding, and it’s just like, “Wow, that’s ahead of me. All I got to do is kind of struggle through this part.” But when you have a mental sport like math, it’s harder to see how fun it’s going to be and how interesting it’s going to be.

Barbara: And so, often, we as parents or guardians or guides, we need to help students through that initial, rough, falling off the bicycle stage of learning mathematics, which is really the foundation for many of the tech-based careers that are available today, or being a doctor, being an engineer. A lot of the well-paying jobs today require a modicum of understanding and expertise in mathematics. So, if you are not encouraging your children to learn math, you are really, you are dramatically reducing the number of career doors that are open to them.

Barbara: So, for me, as a parent, I realized, by that time I was an engineer before we had our two girls, and I realized that if I wanted our girls to have all career doors open to them, they needed to do okay in math. And there’s a very interesting body of research involving little girls and mathematics.

Barbara: If you take little girls and little boys, what are the differences in their abilities to learn math? Zero. There’s no difference. They can excel equally in learning math. But where the difference is, is in verbal skills. As it turns out, testosterone can inhibit or kind of lower, early on, for a little while, students’ verbal abilities. So, that means that little boys, they can do just as well as little girls at math, but they’re behind verbally at that same age, whereas little girls would do just as well as little boys, but they’re actually even better verbally.

Barbara: So, that means a little girl can look inside herself and go, “Oh, you know, they’re telling me to follow my passion. Well, you know, passions develop about what you’re good at. I’m better at verbal things. So, off I’ll go. I’m going to do the verbal kinds of things because it’s easier for me.” And whereas a little boy would look inside himself and say, “Ah, you know, I’m better at analytical kinds of things,” because he is, even though both little boys and little girls have on average the same capabilities in analytical and mathematical skills.

Barbara: So, I knew that my daughters could very easily fall into this I’m so good verbally that they would neglect that math part. And in fact, our older daughter, I mean, she can memorize a poem. I mean, she’s like eight years old and she’d be reciting pages of poetry and explaining the meaning to me. I mean, she’s so verbally sharp. But so I thought, “Well, I want my girls to have all the career doors open for them.” I knew that what they needed was more practice than what the American school system gave them.

Andy: Okay, yeah.

Barbara: So, I put them in a program called Kumon Mathematics, and it’s such a cleverly designed system. It uses interleaving, spaced repetition, like all the things we know are going to be valuable in helping students gain expertise, and this is a whole different conversation, but it builds their procedural abilities. There’s like two different sets of neural links that you want to implant in your long-term memory, and lots of practice helps build procedural links, which helps you be able to think swiftly, and intuitively, and to understand patterns. So, anyways, so we did that for like 10 years with our girls and I don’t care what age your children are at, they can benefit.

About Barbara Oakley, PhD

Barbara Oakley, PhD, is the author of Uncommon Sense Teaching,  A Mind For Numbers, and Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler. With a background in linguistics and engineering, her work now focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behavior. Dr. Oakley’s research has been featured in outlets as varied as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. 

Barbara lives with her husband of 30+ years in Michigan and enjoys talking about books with her four (now adult) children.

Want More Dr. Oakley?

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