How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey

9. Learning Without Thinking: Harnessing Perceptual Discrimination

  • Perceptual learning is automatic, and self-correcting. It’s like you are learning without thinking and it happens all the time. Your senses are constantly perceiving aspects of your surroundings with little or no special effort on your part. This results in some sort of learning. When it comes to specific disciplines, however, a novice is essentially blind to patterns that the expert sees at a glance. The more you know about something, the more likely you are to be able to use this type of learning when you encounter it.
  • Benedict uses the dials on an aircraft’s dashboard as an example. It’s not difficult for a novice to understand one dial at a time, but to understand what they all mean together while the plane is flying takes an experienced pilot. Thanks to computer technology, we can build perceptual learning modules (PLMs) to accelerate learning for subjects that lend themselves to it such as using simulators to learn how to fly. Benedict tries a PLM designed to teach various art genres, and finds it to be very effective. He also discusses how doctors can use such tools to practice surgical skills and diagnose diseases. Teachers should be on the lookout for subjects that can take advantage of this type of learning. The art genre activity looks like it can be adapted to lots of other subjects.

10. You Snooze, You Win: The Consolidating Role of Sleep

  • So what exactly is the sleeping brain doing? We don’t know yet as there is no single agreed-upon scientific explanation. A number of studies have shown that people perform better on certain tests after a good night’s sleep. There are five different types of sleep that vary in depth and activity. The active type is REM sleep, which stands for rapid eye movement. We also know that lack of sleep is bad for concentration and judgement, and may even make us more vulnerable to infection.
  • While some think we evolved our sleeping habits to shut down when the external environment is most dangerous and least likely to offer productive food gathering options, many believe that sleep’s primary purpose is memory consolidation. This is when we sort out the day’s meaningful activity from the trivial and connect new learning to what we already know. Think of sleep as learning with your eyes closed. This function of sleep reinforces the spacing effect discussed in chapter 4. Even short naps in the afternoon appear to improve performance on tests. (Doug: This begs the question: “Why don’t we let kids nap in school?” Also here is another reason why sleep is good for you and can delay or prevent dementia.

Conclusion: The Foraging Brain

  • Humans have been around for at least a million years. Until recently, we did our learning while foraging for food and shelter, and trying to avoid things that would harm us. It’s like being on a camping trip that doesn’t end. Some of what we learned came from elders and peers, but most was accumulated through experience. We learned by listening, watching, exploring, and testing our intuitions. It’s this same brain that now must help us find our way in the catacombs of academic and motor demands. Our brains spend a great deal of time making meaning of what we encounter. We have a need for structure and are constantly looking for patterns. When we are disoriented, our metal circuits behind incubation, percolation, and the nocturnal insights of sleep kick in to gear.
  • If you follow the lessons from this book as the author has, you are more likely to make the most of the skills you have, and exposed ignorance will seem like a cushioned fall. If you are in education, try to introduce concepts like spaced interleaving, mixed-drill practice, and perceptual learning tools. While giving the final on the first day of the course make not work for everyone, the testing advice in this book is extremely likely to produce better results. Also, let the presumed enemies of learning such as ignorance, distraction, interruption, restlessness, and quitting work in your favor and in the favor of your students. Learning is, after all, what we all do.
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3 Responses to “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens by Benedict Carey”

  1. There is a lot of what feels like common sense stuff here… but a lot of the memory research is compelling. The folks who do well in school but don’t achieve well on standardized tests and the idea studying a little bit every day rather than for long hours the day before makes sense to me too. I never knew the facts about recitation, but that was always how I studied… retyped my notes while reading them aloud. Always worked for me.

    Really interesting stuff here… going to share with my students. Thanks

  2. Jess says:

    In response to, “It’s kind of like giving your lawn a little water every day rather than flooding it once a week,” I might recommend a different metaphor. Daily watering makes roots stay shallow so they don’t survive very well in drought, while watering once a week encourages deeper roots that help the lawn survive drought.

  3. Thanks so much for the kind reply. You are correct of course.

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