July 12, 2017

Learning how to learn

Barbara Oakley has a lot to say about learning how to learn. An awful lot. There’s this TEDx talk that has received multiple viewings. There’s her books, such as ‘Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if you Flunked Algebra)’. And then there’s the course that Oakley, an educator, writer and engineer, co-created with a neuroscientist called Terry Sejnowski. That course is called ‘Learning How to Learn: powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects’ and according to the education-focused technology company Coursera, it’s the most popular online course in the world.

Right at the very end of her TEDx talk, Oakley says this: “Learning how to learn is the most powerful tool you can ever grasp.” And she is right, particularly in this age of learning, unlearning and relearning. It is no longer enough to learn something once and expect that to sustain you throughout your career. Continuous, lifelong learning is what we need to be doing now. Everyone needs to keep updating their skills and knowledge. It is particularly important that HR and L&D know how and why to do this – you have to do it for yourselves and you have to help learners do it too.

We can all do it, according to Oakley. She should know – she flunked algebra (her words, not ours) at school and left high school wanting to become a linguist. She did it – she enlisted in the US Army and spent a year learning Russian and ended up with a BA in Slavic Languages and Literature. After several years in the army she left to study engineering. Five years later, she emerged with a BS in Electrical Engineering. She has since acquired an MS degree and PHD in engineering-related subjects. Now, her attention is focused on the relationship between neuroscience and social behaviour.

So, what does she tell us about learning how to learn in her TEDx talk? Firstly, Oakley talks about the brain as having two learning modes: focused learning and diffused learning. Focused learning is as it sounds – when you focus properly on what you are doing. Diffused learning is when you let your brain relax. Both modes of learning are very important, but many of us neglect the second mode – diffused learning – even though it is this mode that often helps us reach creative answers to problems. “When you are learning, you want to go back and forth between those two modes,” says Oakley. And when you come across something you don’t understand or come up against a creative block, that’s when Oakley says you should switch to diffuse mode. “If you get stuck, turn attention away from the problem and allow the diffuse mode to do its work.”

Oakley is by no means the only person to recommend switching off in order to get to the answer you need. In her talk, she says this approach was favoured by two people who are far more famous than her: the artist Salvador Dali and the inventor Thomas Edison. Apparently, when Dali got stuck in his work, he would totally relax in a chair with his keys in his hand. When he was almost asleep, his keys would fall to the floor and when the sound of them falling roused him, he would return to his art, taking what had surfaced during diffuse mode with him. Edison followed the same approach, only he used ball bearings instead of keys.

Of course, this approach is not always practical, particularly in a busy office environment, but Oakley does stress the importance of letting your mind think loosely about a problem in order to let new ideas present themselves.

When it comes to focusing hard on learning, Oakley is a proponent of the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by the Italian Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The Pomodoro Technique (which takes its name from the tomato- shaped kitchen timer used by Cirillo) encourages people to focus on something for 25 minutes to the exclusion of everything else, with a short break at the end of the 25 minutes. By following this approach, Oakley says you get very good at giving all your attention to your learning for a good chunk of time, without allowing any distractions in. This is certainly something the modern learner needs to think about – focusing on the task in hand and not being distracted by other calls on your attention.

Learning how to learn is also a passion of Laura Overton, founder and CEO of the benchmarking organisation, Towards Maturity. Read this piece to see her 37 tips for L&D professionals.

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