Category Archives: education

How We Learn by Benedict Carey

How We Learn by Benedict CareyReview: How We Learn by Benedict Carey (Random House, 2014)

Note: Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing the ARC of this title.

Teaching is a significantly more vexing job than the vast majority of non-teachers may assume. I’m not even a certified teacher, just an ESL drone in Taiwan slaving away at a cram school, but the task is onerous nonetheless. I mean aside from the lesson planning, the crowd control, the constant quest for variety, the caffeine addiction and daily having to deal with an onslaught of proto-humans and the feckless creatures who spawned them, there’s one burning question I face time and time again: “Why isn’t it bloody well sinking in???”

Okay, okay, I know the answers. Laziness, lack of interest, overschooling in a shoddy system and absentee parents cover most of my charges. But then I turn the question back on my own floundering attempts to gain some level of fluency in Mandarin. Why so many mental blocks when I’m so desperate to reach my goal? Why, despite my best efforts, does my brain seem so intent on jettisoning every new character, every grammatical construct I try to cram in there?

In How We Learn (The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens), NYT science reporter Benedict Carey peers behind the brain’s curtain to uncover just what goes on during the process of education. Keenly aware of the ocean of folk wisdom and old wive’s tales surrounding learning and retention he attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff and come out with a working model which will be useful to students and teachers alike.

The book kicks off with a brief, layman-friendly look at the neuroscience of learning. Without going into any scary detail, Carey gives us an enlightening tour of the physical mechanisms which come into play when trying to cram a new skill or set of dates into our crania. However, this is just by way of an introduction. Soon he gets on to the meat of the matter and the part in which most readers are doubtless interested: how do we make it work better?

Much of How We Learn takes the form of holding pieces of time-worn ‘wisdom’ up to the harsh light of scientific study (padded by Carey’s own enthusiastic personal anecdotes for some light relief) and seeing how they hold up. Take routine for example. Everyone and their gran knows that if you want to get some serious learning done you sit yourself down in your learning chair, turn off the music and totally immerse yourself in exactly the same way you did the day before. Bzzzt! Wrong! It transpires that a lack of variety in the learning environment can actually be an impediment to successful retention and recall of information. In the real world we’re seldom going to be using the information we ingest in exactly the same environment or on the same schedule. Injecting variety into the study schedule acknowledges this fact and strengthens our ability to dredge the subject matter back up whenever we need it.

And so it goes for myth after myth. It turns out that forgetting is actually good for you, strengthening the memory in a manner not unlike the tearing of muscle fibre being used to beef up the body. The repair system itself makes us stronger. Or what about cramming the night before an exam? Well, it does indeed work – in the short term. However, give it a few weeks and you’ll be struggling to even remember what was on the exam paper. What about doing your studies every day, simply pounding in those facts till they stay in place? Nope, spaced repetition is the key as any student who has attempted to use an online language learning tool will doubtless be aware.

To Carey’s credit, How We Learn is scrupulously backed up with references. This isn’t some flimsy, new-age book – it’s all based in hard science and experimentation. However it’s presented in such a way as to make it both immediately accessible to those needing a boost in their study endeavours and deep enough to satisfy the curiosity of educators. I’m already working on ways to incorporate his findings and advice into my classes, boss’s approval pending. Definitely worth a read no matter which side of the educational fence you’re currently occupying.


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Filed under education, Psychology, Science