With schools and universities starting again, Benedict Carey’s How We Learn is the right guide for getting your brain in full swing
Learning is a slog. You have to sit down, shut out the world, focus relentlessly on a tiresome subject, and keep repeating this until it finally sticks. Then, the next day, you have to go back to the very same place and start hammering formulas, vocabulary and facts into your brain once again. Exam dates are looming and you know if you stick to your schedule you will reap the rewards.
But you are wrong.
In fact, some diversions – music, snacks or chit-chat – are not only tolerable, they can vastly improve your performance. As can changing your environment every so often, testing yourself on material you barely know, and getting thoroughly mixed up once in a while. Our brain, it turns out, is a rather eccentric beast, and instead of taming it, we’d be wiser to saddle up and get ready for a rough and joyful ride.
In his new book How We Learn, New York-based journalist Benedict Carey sets out to debunk myths about learning and tell us how we can do it better. Some of his insights, for example, the idea that it is good to allow your brain to build a web of associations and challenge your senses when studying, may not be totally new for those familiar with the ever-growing literature on teaching and learning. But he really drives home some of those familiar points through examples, such as the story of the divers who learned word lists underwater and were able to recall more words when donning their diving gear and jumping in again.
The book’s section headings – Basic Theory, Retention, Problem Solving and Tapping the Subconscious – come across a little bit like a psychology textbook. In parts it also reads that way, particularly when 19th-century psychologists are ushered in for their sometimes helpful, sometimes odd contributions to the science of learning. Cognoscenti of Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow will notice similarities to that bestseller, not least in the little exercises for the reader scattered throughout the book, and the alternating structure of personal anecdotes, scientific background and concrete application.
This does not mean, however, that Carey is merely repeating what has already been said. By standing on the shoulders of giants, he delves deeper into the particularities of learning itself without having to dwell too long on the more general workings of the brain. This focus also makes the book an easier and quicker, if less scientifically extensive, read. In fact, there is an argument to make that the text would have profited from even more streamlining. Perhaps readers could have picked up tips and tricks without needing to know the exact experimental set-up that led to those conclusions.
Ignorance Can Be Bliss
The lessons we learn throughout the book can be easily implemented and adjusted according to personal needs. Teachers may take heart from the chapters on the beneficial effects of reciting learned material and testing as a form of self-examination. Parents will find new arguments to convince their children of the worth of spacing out your studying time over several days in a week, but they may also grow to appreciate variable studying schedules – as well as music, friends and other distractions – that might actually help your child to learn. Finally, anyone from schoolchildren and college students, to all those simply aiming to make their studying time both efficient and fun, are sure to find a basket of helpful advice.
Carey, himself a veteran of all stages of study – from obstinate rote learning and vitamin-assisted pre-exam cramming to university-age laxity – is a credible guide in this endeavor. Of course, he provides no silver bullet that will enable you to speak a new language in two weeks. But his book might just make your life easier the next time you plunge into the strange and peculiar world of German grammar.