How We Learn. Really.

CareyIn his runaway bestseller, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, Benedict Carey observes, “The science of learning is, at bottom, a study of the mental muscle doing the work — the living brain — and how it manages the streaming sights, sounds, and scents of life.”

He explains with meticulous care what works and what doesn’t as well as why when we attempt to learn or when someone attempts to teach us.

Those who purchase this book expecting Carey to reveal a “secret sauce,” secrets, short cuts, etc. to accelerate their learning process will be very disappointed. This is not a book for intellectual dilettantes.

There really is a “science of learning” and it requires the same rigor and focus that the study of physics or calculus does.

When asked, “How much doers quizzing oneself like with flashcards help?” here is Carey’s response:

“A lot, actually. Self-testing is one of the strongest study techniques there is. Old-fashioned flashcards work fine; so does a friend, work colleague, or classmate putting you through your paces. The best self-quizzers do two things: They force you to [begin italics] chose [end italics] the right answer from several possibilities; and they give you immediate feedback, right or wrong. As laid out in Chapter 5, self-examination improves retention and comprehension for more than an equal amount of review timer. It can take many forms as well. Reciting a passage from memory, either in front of a colleague or a mirror, is a form of testing. So is explaining it to yourself while pacing the kitchen, or to a work colleague or friend over lunch. As teachers often say, ‘You don’t fully understand a topic until you have to teach it.’ Exactly right.”

In a similar vein, Albert Einstein once suggested to a graduate student at Princeton, “If you can’t explain your great idea to a six year-old, you really don’t understand it.”

Here’s my take on Carey’s book:

1. People must be self-motivated to learn.
2. They learn more about whatever interests them.
3. Achieving that objective is the reward they cherish most.
4. People learn more when they learn with others, in collaboration.
5. The more people explain something to others, the better they will understand it.

To repeat: This is not a book for intellectual dilettantes.

Ben Carey is an award-winning science reporter who has been at The New York Times since 2004, and one of the newspaper’s most emailed reporters. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in math and from Northwestern University with a master’s in journalism, and has written about health and science for twenty-five years. He lives in New York City.

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