Learning how to learn: the most powerful mental tools to help with the big thinking issues
The Rafael del Pino Foundation organised, on 23 January 2019, the Master Conference "Learning how to learn: the most powerful mental tools that help in the big issues of thinking" given by Barbara Oakley.
Barbara Oakley is Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, a Ramon y Cajal Distinguished Scholar in Global Digital Learning at McMaster University. She is course director of Coursera's "Learning to Learn" course, the world's largest online course. Oakley is an international authority on neuroeducation and winner of numerous teaching awards, including the Chester F. Carlson Award from the American Society for Engineering Education. In her books "A Mind for Numbers" and "Mindshift", she offers keys to discovering our hidden potential through learning. Oakley has had an adventurous life. She was commissioned as a Captain in the US Army, worked as a communications expert at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, and worked as a translator aboard fishing boats in the Bering Sea. Dr Oakley invites us to step out of our comfort zone to develop new skills and work on flexibility: "A quality that will help us adapt to an ever-changing world," she says.
On 23 January 2019, the Rafael del Pino Foundation hosted a keynote lecture by Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering at Oakland University, on how to learn.
Professor Oakley began her presentation by recalling her life and how challenging it was for her to learn mathematics when she was in school. The problem was that her parents were constantly moving from one part of the United States to another. Education everywhere used to be much the same, except for mathematics. Learning mathematics is sequential learning and if you miss a point, then it is very difficult to make it up and go on. Professor Oakley therefore struggled with maths, didn't like it and failed all her exams. Now, Professor Oakley teaches mathematics at the University. So one day, a student asked her how she managed to learn maths, given her past. Professor Oakley explained that one day she asked herself what she wanted to do, what she was passionate about, and she thought that what she wanted to do was to learn Russian. Then she found out that there was a way to do it where you got paid for it. It was the army. Professor Oakley didn't think twice, she enlisted, learned Russian and ended up in the Bering Sea and Antarctica, where she met her husband 35 years ago. When she graduated, she realised that she had followed her passion, but also that no one was interested in her degree in Slavic languages. So she started to think again about what she wanted to do and remembered that she had worked with engineers and had seen their equations. Then he realised that the strangest thing he could do was to learn mathematics and engineering and went back to university. Learning mathematics was not an easy task. He found the books impossible to understand and marked them out of sheer rage. But, little by little, he made progress and while working, he also started teaching. Then he realised that he had to write a book about the need to change the mindset of learning. When he finished the book, he gave it to teachers who excelled in teaching to read, and they gave him many comments, although many of them agreed on one point: the use of metaphor. Metaphors are very important for students to learn key ideas. He also spoke to leading neuroscientists in his field. From them he learned that the brain has two main modes of functioning. The first is the focused mode, in which we activate a rather limited neural network that is related to task performance. The second is the diffuse mode, in which thoughts are more random, such as when a person is in the shower. He also learned that there are often default thought patterns that thought will tend to follow. From there he wondered what happens when we are learning something new. Because what we want is to establish a new thought pattern, but because we don't know how to manage it, we end up going back to the traditional pattern. When we abandon a task, we forget about it and go into the fuzzy mode. In this mode we think in a much more generic way and we can solve the problem. So, when we are learning, the mind fluctuates between focused and fuzzy mode. When learning, it can also be very helpful to try to explain something and take a step back so that people can consolidate the ideas, because you have to force the thoughts back into the fuzzy mode. Procrastination, in fact, is not an evil, but a good because it is allowing the mind to go into fuzzy mode. To understand how the brain learns, you have to understand how neurons work. They send signals to each other and end up connecting to each other, creating channels. This leads us to understand that we need to learn little by little to give the neurons time to form the structure that develops with study. Physical exercise enhances memory and learning because it produces a substance in the brain called BDNF that helps neurons form learning structures. Two types of memory are involved in learning. The first is working memory, or short-term memory. This is everything that can be remembered temporarily. The second is long-term memory, where everything that is learned is stored. When you first learn something, the working memory goes a bit crazy creating neural structures, because it handles a huge cognitive load. When we start learning, that load is reduced. As we master something, more links are created in those structures, which become part of long-term memory. Learning requires creating links that working memory can easily pick up. To specialise is to create these neural links. When we want to retain what we are reading, the best way to do it is to read a page, stop, look away and try to remember the main idea. This is what we call remembering and it is very effective. Another way is to test your knowledge whenever you can test yourself. When we learn we often make the mistake of thinking that some of our traits are not good for learning. In reality, they are. For example, people who have a poor working memory are much more creative people. Or people who learn very slowly are people who see things and understand them in a much deeper way than those who see things more quickly.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.
The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.