How Do We Learn Best?
The most important learning is without words.
Posted October 16, 2014
1. Taking a walk across an abandoned car park
2. Studying for a required calculus test?
Teachers, academics and most folks will probably choose #2. Even if we don’t like calculus, we are taking a required test. That’s gotta be important.
Yet most human learning does not involve numbers, or words, or mathematical symbols. Most learning does not engage language at all.
But in strolling through that carpark you will help learn:
1. How to fight off viruses like Ebola and AIDS.
2. How to move, think and act in three dimensional space.
3. What ligaments and muscles, tendons and joints need to be remade differently. You will also that night grow new brain cells – during sleep. And these new brain cells will be used to grow your memory capacity – – and help you learn the next day and the next.
Calculus is great. Survival may perhaps prove more important. Biology is a regenerating information system powered by learning – chance learning.
But we don’t hear our immune system talking to us, whispering to us in our sleep. We don’t hear the language of immunity or our joints, our muscles, our spleen and lungs, unless we feel out of sorts.
Most of our learning accomplishments do not readily form into words. Think of riding a bicycle. Or killing off an invading cold virus. Since we don’t think much about how those processes work, we discount them. And that makes us disregard the real ways in which our bodies live, work and learn:
On the fly. Through memories within memories. Always replacing the old with the new.
Because the universe we live in always changes. And if we don’t change with it, we die.
The New Ways to Learn
Seeing brain and body operate as layers upon layers of information systems is a novel concept to many. But it is eminently practical. It can help us learn the “hard stuff” – what we need to succeed in education and on the job. Recent books like Benedict Carey’s useful “How We Learn” get at some of these fruitful methods, but not all. When you recognize the body is a giant system of regenerating information you think differently. You can learn more effectively. Here are few things you might want to know about:
1. Making and Breaking. In the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney spoke passionately about our economy’s “makers and takers.” In brain economic terms, the issue is “makers and breakers.”
Make a new memory – and you will soon break an old one.
Memories reside inside memories. Information lives – inside us – attached to other information.
In order to learn and remember, you generally have to physically “break” an old memory and put it together with an old one - a new synthesis. Learning occurs on top of old learning. It’s a physico-chemical process of creation. You don’t get what you had before. So most memories don’t stay the same for very long. They change.
Brains are not collections of facts laced together into permanent storage, like DVDs. Memories are remade on the fly.
2. Context – In. The brain loves novelty. What it really likes is salience. That means stuff that sticks out like a sore thumb, like Lady Gaga doing the interviews on "Meet the Press."
Since learning nests within other learning, we learn better moving between different contexts and environments.
Want to study for that calculus exam? Try it in different carrels in different parts of the library. Better still – do some of it outside, seated in your living room, or comfortably ensconced on your porch’s rocking chair.
Remember – most of your memory and learning is not conscious. Everything goes into the hopper. Different environments mean more contexts – and different ways your brain summarizes and recalls.
3. Context – Out. What to learn something really well? As Carey and others preach, go out and teach it.
Or sing it out. Or turn it into a poem. Or paint it. Or prepare it as part of an ad campaign for a new shoe store.
Make it your own and you learn it more effectively.
4. Body Clocks. People possess better long term memory capacity in the evenings. That must be why we teach most kids in the mornings, right?
One basic principle of human regeneration is to use your body the way it’s built. Some body clock times are better for long term learning. Cramming all night is usually an unsuccessful strategy – unless your single goal is passing a test. It’s also important to recognize learning limits. Most of us don’t learn well for hours and hours on end. Take breaks or you’ll make mistakes.
5. Relaxed Concentration. As Bill Murray says, almost all performance is easier and more effective when we’re relaxed.
There are many, many ways to achieve relaxed concentration (my book, “The Power of Rest,” includes a bunch.) But too much anxiety can kill performance. So can too little anxiety – as in not caring at all.
Relaxation plus concentration goes a long way.
6. Timed intervals. What’s better – studying for 12 hours straight, never moving or getting up – or for six 90 minute intervals with breaks in-between?
Most of us know the answer from our own experience. Just as there are clocks that determine our performance, so does our attention span.
And we learn better working in intervals.
The same is true in athletics – and many other sorts of learning. The rule is conceptually simple – learn, wait, repeat the lesson. That helps memories become consolidated.
7. Rest. Want to stop learning? Stop sleeping.
Lots of studies show teenagers learn more effectively when they get more sleep. We learn in sleep. Our bodies grow in sleep. We regenerate in sleep.
And we do it all differently than when we are awake.
We learn or we die. Most of our learning – like the stuff that keeps us our bodies alive – is learned in ways that don’t require language.
But it is learning nonetheless.
And because the body is endlessly learning, constantly updating, regenerating its stores of information on the fly, we are able to learn from our first breath to our last.
Learning is necessary. It’s wonderful. It’s fun.
Particularly if you know how to do it.