Keys, please! Opening the doors to New Zealand’s future

Guest contributor Barbara Oakley
Insights Newsletter
3 May, 2019

Students and employees – even high-tech workers – are usually taught what to learn but rarely how to learn. This gap is an enormous opportunity. If ever there was low-hanging educational fruit for New Zealand business leaders, educators, workers, students and parents to grab, it is in teaching people to learn more effectively!

For centuries, researchers did not understand what was happening in the brain when students were learning. Not surprisingly, this made both teaching and learning more difficult. It is like trying to make a car run more efficiently – but without being able to look under the hood to see how the engine operates.

Luckily, in the past few decades neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have made enormous advances that can help students avoid frustration and learn more efficiently. Learners find these advances to be of real and practical use in their everyday lives. This is probably why Learning how to learn, which I teach with leading neuroscientist Terence Sejnowski, is one of the most popular online courses in the world, with some 2.5 million students enrolled.

Many learners believe they do not have a talent for language or math because the subject never came easily to them. But the fact is, they can succeed using a few simple mental tools. The Pomodoro Technique, for example, allows people to focus intently, accomplishing far more than usual in shorter periods of time, and also allows them a brief rest to make better sense of what they have just learned. The Hard Start technique allows students to solve more difficult problems piecemeal through tests, which lowers stress. Reviewing a hard-to-learn item right before sleeping can allow neural pathways to develop more easily while you sleep. This means you are more likely to wake up with the solution in mind.

Underneath the neural “bonnet,” we are discovering the reasons why some people are slower learners – and that this slowness can give these seemingly sluggish brains an advantage. It is like the difference between a zooming race car driver and a hiker who has to walk every step to the finish line. The race car driver does get to the finish line faster – but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker, on the other hand, gets to the finish line much more slowly. But while walking, the hiker can reach out and touch the leaves on the trees, smell the pine in the air, and hear the birds. Hiking is a completely different experience than race car driving, and in some ways, far richer and deeper. Indeed, research shows that sometimes, slower learners can make discoveries and breakthroughs that even geniuses cannot.

Most people all over the world – including Kiwis – remain unaware of these remarkably useful new insights. It is time we made learning easier for all.

Click here to download Professor Barbara Oakley’s presentation to the New Zealand Initiative event held at the University of Auckland on 1 May.

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