The Science of Learning: How to Turn Information into Intelligence | Barbara Oakley

The Science of Learning: How to Turn Information into Intelligence | Barbara Oakley

November 29, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


A very important idea that people are often
unaware of is the fact that we have two completely different ways of seeing the world, two different
neural networks we access when we’re perceiving things. So what this means is when we first sit down
to learn something—for example, we’re going to study math. You sit down and you focus on it. So you focus and you’re activating task-positive
networks. And then what happens is you’re working
away and then you start to get frustrated. You can’t figure out what’s going on. What’s happening is you’re focusing and
you’re using one small area of your brain to analyze the material. But it isn’t the right circuit to actually
understand and comprehend the material. So you get frustrated. You finally give up, and then when you give
up and get your attention off it it turns out that you activate a completely different
type of or set of neural circuits. That’s the default mode network and the
related neural circuits. So what happens is you stop thinking about
it, you relax, you go off for a walk, you take a shower. You’re doing something different. And in the background this default mode network
is doing some sort of neural processing on the side. And then what happens is you come back and
voila, suddenly the information makes sense. And, in fact, it can suddenly seem so easy
that you can’t figure out why you didn’t understand it before. So learning often involves going back and
forth between these two different neural modes – focus mode and what I often call diffuse
mode which involves **** resting states. You can only be in one mode at the same time So you might wonder, is there a certain task
that is more appropriate for focus mode or diffuse mode? The reality is that learning involves going
back and forth between these two modes. You often have to focus at first in order
to sort of load that information into your brain and then you do something different,
get your attention off it and that’s when that background processing occurs. And this happens no matter what you’re learning. Whether you’re learning something in math
and science, you’re learning a new language, learning music, a dance. Even learning to back up a car. And think about it this way. Here’s a very important related idea and
that is that when you’re learning something new you want to create a well practiced neural
pattern that you can easily draw to mind when you need it. So this is called a neural chunk and chunking
theory is incredibly important in learning. So, for example, if you are trying to learn
to back up a car when you first begin it’s crazy, right. You’re looking all around. Do you look in this mirror or this mirror
or do you look behind you? What do you do? It’s this crazy set of information. But after you’ve practiced a while you develop
this very nice sort of pattern that’s well practiced. So all you have to do is think I’m going
to back up a car. Instantly that pattern comes to mind and you’re
able to back up a car. Not only are you doing that but you’re maybe
talking to friends, listening to the radio. It’s that well practiced neural chunk that
makes it seem easy. So it’s important in any kind of learning
to create these well practiced patterns. And the bigger the library of these patterns,
the more well practiced sort of deeper and broader they are as neural patterns in your
mind, the more expertise you have in that topic. And chunking was first sort of thought of
or explored by Nobel Prize Winner [Herbert] Simon who found that, if you’re a chess
master, that the higher you’re ranking in chess, the more patterns of chess you have
memorized. So you could access more and more patterns
of chess. So research began developing and what they
found was that the better your expertise at anything, the more solid neural patterns,
what I call neural chunks you have. So, for example, if you might know how to
do mathematics very well. Well you’ve got certain patterns related
to multiplication and you’ve practiced quite a bit with them. And so you can pull them instantly to mind. And likewise, division. And then you go higher so you’ve got calculus. You’ve got the concept of the limit. You’ve got integrals, derivatives. And you practice with each one of those enough
so that it is almost like backing up a car. All you have to do is think oh, I’ve got
to take this derivative and boom, off you go. You’re taking your derivative and it seems
very easy to you. So a challenge that we’ve had is for a long
time, particularly in mathematics education, it was felt that if you practiced too much
that it would kill your creativity. And that’s actually not true. You want to do the right kind of practice
where you’re interleaving and doing one technique and then trying that with another
technique. You don’t want to just be doing the same
thing over and over again. But practicing by – here’s a good way
to practice developing a chunk. Let’s say that you’ve got a homework assignment. You’ve got this homework problem and it’s
a really difficult homework problem. So what you tend to do, well you do it and
you turn it in. That is the equivalent of you have just sung
a song one time and thinking that you know how to sing that song beautifully in front
of an audience. Well, it doesn’t work that way. A good thing to do when you’re learning
something that’s difficult is find key, in math, key problems and then see if you
can work it cold. If you can’t, take a peek at whatever hints
you need to be able to finish working it. Then maybe a little later try working it again
cold without looking at the answer. And maybe you go further. The next day try it again. Go a little further and practice it. What you’re trying to do is to develop the
same patterns that you would develop if you practice singing a song a number of times. And if you do this with key problems in math,
or if you’re learning a language key conjugation patterns, for example—Then those patterns
become automatic. So, for example, with your problem after several
days of practice you find you’ve worked it out enough times by pencil that when you
just look at the problem you can step through all the solution steps in your mind. You’ve created a valuable chunk. And so then when it comes test time and you’ve
got maybe five, ten of these key problems – so you can just look at them and know
what you’re supposed to be doing. Suddenly when you’re taking that test you
can pull this chunk up and connect it with this chunk and solve new problems you haven’t
seen before and it’s a really, really powerful technique is to realize that all learning
involves getting these neural chunks together.