Book Review: How We Learn

41eVM7qA80L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Title: How We Learn

Author: Benedict Carey

Publisher: Random House

Year: 2014

Pages: 200 (e-Book (Nook), ARC; hardcover book 272)

[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my fair and unbiased review of this book. I was given no compensation and I am not required to write a positive review. I only tell you this because someone in the government thinks you need to know. To be sure, I don't even get to keep the book.]

The problem with reviewing this book is that I don't  know enough about Mr Carey to know if he has an agenda for writing this book or if he is just really excited about the sort of research he reports in the book. That is, maybe he's so interested in this stuff that he just needed to have an outlet and wanted to share it with an audience who would appreciate it. Then again, "The more I discovered about it, the stronger the urge to do something bigger than a news story" (185). I actually get this. I actually understand something so powerfully welling up inside that it has to have a vent. This book exudes Carey's enthusiasm for this subject.

But he goes on to spell out his objective a little more clearly, "It dawned on me that all these scientists, toiling in obscurity, were producing a body of work that was more than interesting or illuminating or groundbreaking. It was practical…" (185) I get this too.

I work in Special Education and much of the work that I do involves the day in, day out, routine building type of consistency that drives me nuts. I need the mix up. I need the frenzied action that comes with chaos. Oh, sure, I have lesson plans and I try very hard to follow them. But maybe there is something to the idea that going through a day without distractions, a day full of routine, a day without ever taking a break is not the best way to learn.

Or maybe it's like writing a book review: so that when I get stuck with what to say next, I should just stop, re-read what I've written or take a video game break, and start again later. I used to do this when I was preaching full-time: maybe I had writer's block, maybe I couldn't get the transition to work smoothly to the next point, or maybe there appeared to be no coherence between the introduction and conclusion. I would just stop. I hadn't read a study that suggested doing so was a healthy idea, I just did it. I'd put it away and forget about it…sometimes not even bothering to finish until Sunday mornings…sometimes not finishing until I actually stepped into the pulpit to preach the sermon.

I remember learning to read Koine Greek this way. I would practice my vocabulary words until I learned them and then use them in class and in translating, but when it came to test time, I would break out the cards again. It was helpful, to me at least, to create space between study sessions. There's also the idea of 'spacing' which I found to be an especially helpful idea–particularly as it relates to how I teach in my classroom. Regrettably, we spend a lot of time with word lists in education–especially sight (or high-frequency words) words which are the words we use most in our conversations and reading. Maybe what I hadn't considered is how environment does affect student learning. We always say that behavior is environmental, but suppose learning is too. This would explain (in part, at least) why students–especially special education students–find it so terribly difficult to generalize skills learned in one environment to another–whether related to behavior or academics.

What I like about this book is that it confirmed that I am not an oddball because certain things worked for me. A quiet setting never worked for me when it came to studying (cf. p 11). I prefer to study in a place where there is activity and action; chaos and confusion. I like the distractions. I like to sit in the middle of the living room with a television or radio playing in the background. I like to study in different places–and at different times. I like to mess with the schedule–and I like to do that for my students as well. I love scrapping the lesson plans, no matter how beautifully written, and challenge the students with a game or hands-on task (cf. p 52). I was especially happy to learn that 'forgetting' is as important to learning as 'remembering' is. I was also happy to learn that taking naps is not a sign of being a slouch.

Maybe this book isn't so much about the way we learn as it is about the way we teach. Interestingly, much of what I read in the book seems to correlate wonderfully what I have been learning over the last two years about formative instructional practices. (Teachers who read this will understand what I mean without my having to give a dissertation here as space precludes such a lesson.) Knowing ahead of time that 'testing' is important for learning as mere studying is was enlightening. One of the hardest things I have found in my own classroom is getting students to buy into the idea that we don't have to get everything correct. I did this just today when I was giving my students a pre-test on simple subtraction facts and one of my students complained, "I don't know what to do." I kept telling him that it didn't matter; just guess. Write down some numbers. Practice. Try. "…guessing wrongly increases a person's likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one, on a later test" (89).  But we are born and bred on the notion that we must get it right. (I think chapter 5, The Hidden Value of Ignorance: The Many Dimensions of Testing was my favorite chapter because it was the most practical.)

I enjoyed this book. It was readable. It was fun (the author includes a lot of samples in the book so the reader can practice the theories being written about.) There were helpful charts and illustrations scattered throughout the book. It was an interesting tour through some of the history of learning that I hadn't read about in graduate school. Some of the names were familiar, but as he notes, these scientists who have pioneered these studies in how memory works worked in relative obscurity. So unless you are on the cutting edge of this research it is likely you haven't heard of many of these men and women. I applaud the author for bringing them to the popular reader. Carey makes their stories readable and enjoyable.

This book will be helpful, in my opinion, for teachers who want to do a little experimentation to see if some of these theories are true in practice. But for the armchair psychologist (as well as the expert), this is a good place to begin a study of how we learn. It's a fun read, but it's not light. It is challenging at times; nevertheless, I think Carey did a great job of parsing out much of the nomenclature for his readers and making this work accessible to a larger audience.

I'll let him close my review: "Learning is hard. Thinking is hard. It's as exhausting, though in a different way, as physical labor and wears most of us down at a similar rate" (p 176). Maybe something we should do is simply let our students take a nap every now and then.

5/5–an excellent volume and contribution to our understanding of how we learn and, conversely, how we teach.

PS-even though I received an ARC (which I don't get to keep), I will be purchasing this book so that I can do a little more research and enjoy the book at a deeper level.


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