Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Learning How to Learn with Barbara Oakley's A Mind for Numbers

While on vacation last month I read A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley, Ph.D.  In this new book, Oakley offers mental tips on learning that can help anyone with any subject or discipline, including art, music, literature and sports - not just math and science.  Of course as I was reading it I related everything back to my study and learning of music.

Barbara Oakley failed her high school math and science classes, but had a knack for language.  Without the money to go to college, she enlisted in the Army right out of high school, which gave her the opportunity to follow her passions and learn Russian.  When she later became 2nd Lieutenant in the Signal Corps, the need for the technological expertise she had shied away from became apparent.  Oakley learned how to re-tool her brain from math-phobe to math-lover and is now an engineering professor at Oakland University professor in Rochester, MI.

A free online course from the University of California San Diego, based on the methods in this book begins October 3rd through Coursera, and you can register now.  The course is being taught by the author Barbara Oakley and her colleague Terrence Sejnowski.

Here are some of the highlights I took away from the book A Mind for Numbers:

The Pomodoro Technique
Distractions pull up neural roots before they can grow.  The Pomodoro technique involves turning off all distractions, beeps and alarms such as cell phones, TVs and computers for 25 minutes and focusing intently on a task, working as diligently as you can.  Almost anyone can focus his attention for that long.  When the 25 minutes are up, treat yourself to a reward.  By doing one or two Pomodoros a day, you avoid the tendency to cram everything in at the last minute.  The Pomodoro technique combats procrastination.

The Process, Not The Product
It's about the process and not the product.  Don't worry about finishing the task, just the process - the work itself. Process is the way you spend your time - small bits of time you need over days or weeks.  Product is what you want to accomplish.

Focused Mode and Diffuse Mode
The brain uses two very different learning modes - the focused mode and the diffuse mode - and "chunks" information.

The focused mode is when you are concentrating.  The diffuse mode is not-concentrating, as in taking your mind off the problem and allowing a little time to pass while you wash dishes, go for a walk, and so on.  Part of the key to creativity is switching from focused concentration to the relaxed, dreamy, diffuse mode.  When you take a break another part of your mind takes over and works in the background.  When you return to the problem, you will be farther along in your learning.

Chunking
"Chunking" is the uniting of separate bits of information through meaning.  Chunks are built with focused attention on the information you want to chunk and understanding the basic idea.  Eventually the concept begins to connect more easily and smoothly in your mind.  Once a concept is chunked, you don't need to remember all the little details - you've got the main idea.  You start to let go of conscious awareness and do things automatically.  Once you grasp a chunk in one subject, it is much easier to grasp a similar chunk in another subject.

Recall
Attempting to recall the material you are trying to learn is far more effective than simply re-reading the text.  Don't passively re-read.  After you read a page or chapter look away and recall the main ideas.  Highlight very little and never highlight anything you haven't first put into your mind by recalling.  Highlighting can fool you into thinking you are putting something in your brain, when all you're doing is moving your hand.

Retrieval practice helps improve your understanding of a concept.  You learn more and at a much deeper level.  Recalling enhances deep learning and helps begin forming chunks.  The more effort you put into recalling, the deeper it embeds itself into your memory.

Barbara Oakley @barbaraoakley
Eat Your Frogs First
Work on the most important, most difficult and most disliked subjects in the morning.  When you later take your mind off the subject, the diffuse mode will be able to work its magic.

Exercise
Exercise helps us learn and remember more effectively.  Mentally review the problem in your mind while doing something active like walking or some other physical activity.  You usually become more effective when you return to your work.

Einstellung
The Einstellung Effect is the tendency to stick with the solution you already know rather than looking for potentially superior ones.  Be mindful that parts of the brain are wired to believe that whatever we've done, no matter how glaringly wrong it might be, is just fine, thank you very much.  If you're stumped on something, discover who first came up with the method.  Try to understand how the creative inventor arrived at the idea and why the idea is used.

Experts are slower to begin solving a problem.  Slower ways of thinking can allow you to see confusing subtleties that others aren't aware of.  This is the equivalent of a walker who notices the scent of pine and small-animal paths vs. a motorist who is whizzing by.

Repetition
Strengthen an initial learning pattern the day after you first begin by working on the problem again, as soon as possible.  Keep your focus on the parts that are difficult for you.  Space your repetition. Spread out your learning a little every day.  Your brain is like a muscle - it can only handle a limited amount of exercise on any one subject at any time.

Skim Ahead
In a textbook or learning material it helps to skip ahead to check the questions at the end of the chapter and also skim through the pages looking for text that stands out before reading it in full.  This helps prime the brain for building chunks of understanding.

Keep A Weekly List
Once a week, write a brief weekly list of key tasks.  Look at the big picture and set priorities.  Before going to sleep each night, write a list of the tasks you can reasonably work on the the next day.  This helps your subconscious grapple with the list.

Simplify And Talk Through Difficult Concepts
Simple explanations are possible for almost any concept, no matter how complex.  When you break down complicated material to its key elements, the result is you have a deeper understanding of the material.  Imagine someone has just walked into your office and explain the idea in the simplest terms, so that a ten year old could understand it.  Your own understanding arises as a consequence of attempts to explain.

Sleep
Sleep is an important part of the learning process.  Sleep washes toxins out of the brain.  Your brain pieces together problem-solving techniques when you sleep and it also practices and repeats whatever you put in mind right before you go to sleep.  Lack of sleep is related to poor concentration.  Before you go to sleep, mentally recall the problem or subject matter again in your mind.  Let your subconscious tell you what to do next.

Know When To Stop
Learn to set a reasonable quitting time, doing work earlier in the day and saving relaxation time for later.  Set a goal finish time for the day, such as 9pm.  Planning your quitting time is as important as planning your working time.  Done!

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