Today in the NY Times there was an article titled “Better Ways to Learn” by Tara Parker-Pope. She writes about a new book by another NY Times reporter, Benedict Carey, called “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens”. I was excited to hear something new on the topic, maybe even groundbreaking.
According to Pope, Mr. Carey is offering a new blueprint for learning based on “decades of brain science, memory tests and learning studies.” Some highlights are that shorter study times, bigger breaks (two days) between study times, changing locations and the always important good night’s rest, make for the best ways to memorize facts and study information for tests.
To be fair, I have not read the book. And I must say that this description of the book does not make me want to read it. Did we really need another book about how to memorize information for a test? Ironically, in the article, Pope quotes Carey as saying, ”we tend to have a static and narrow notion of how learning should happen,” and yet he seems to have written a book about how to learn in a static and narrow style of teaching. Nowhere does Pope mention how interest in a subject plays into learning something well or why we need to memorize facts, like names of presidents, during this time of immediate access to all information.
Instead of trying to figure out how to get students to “study smarter” as part of an outdated mode of teaching, we should rethink our static and narrow notion of teaching, to begin with. First of all, are kids studying subjects of interest? Are they connected in a community of learners? Are they able to discover in an exploratory, hands on way? Why are flash cards and memorization such a large part of what people consider acceptable teaching in higher education? John Holt, the father of unschooling, champions a model where schools teach a specific thing, such as a language, where people are not compelled to go, but choose to go. That is an environment where flashcards might make sense, as they can be helpful in subjects which require memorization, though it is the desire to learn the subject that is vital. Doesn’t discussing and arguing different sides of an issue or engaging in hands on activities, like taking apart a machine, encourage deeper thinking, better memory and more rounded and relevant behaviors for tomorrow's jobs?
Instead, we should be reading the research of Peter Gray. His book “Free to Learn”, based on years of research, is groundbreaking and informs how we can support kids “learning better” by creating better environments in which learning is natural. Gray outlines the seven sins of “forced” education, as he terms it. Sin number three is the “undermining of intrinsic motivation to learn (turning learning into work)”. We don’t need another book to teach us how to do that better. We need to change the nature of education.