Some popular science books are dumbed-down echoes of what other popular science books have already said. At best, they’re mildly entertaining and informative, but at worst, they mislead, filling the world with oversimplified factoids. Ideas should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Benedict Carey is nobody’s fool. On page 5, after saying the brain’s modules are like a movie production crew, he takes a step back and says that actually they’re not, because metaphors are all inherently flawed.
What a relief, I thought. This was not going to be a book that would hand me an analogy in place of actual explanation. This was a book written by someone keenly conscious of the tools of writing and their limitations, an intelligent writer with respect for his readers’ intelligence.
How We Learn provides some general background in brain research, by (for example) summarizing some ground-breaking research on split-brain patients which is fascinating if you’ve never heard about it, but there’s a particular thrust to the book which is to apply brain science to the domain of education. The book relates the conclusions of several different kinds of studies designed to find out what circumstances and techniques lead to better learning.
The marketing text on the back of the book is click-baity: “What if almost everything we have been told about learning is wrong? And what if there is a way to achieve more with less effort?”
In fact, some of the conclusions are familiar: Cramming works for tests, but if you want to remember stuff longer, study a little bit, often. Sometimes, however, there’s a twist: Sleep is good, yeah, but if you have to cut some sleep, should you stay up later or wake up earlier? Well, it depends. Read the chapter on sleep to find out why.
Whether or not the advice in the book will help you put your laziness, ignorance, and distraction to work for you as the back cover seems to promise, it’s fun reading about scientific studies of memory and learning when someone has packaged them in an entertaining and articulate way, as Benedict Carey has done.
When and Why I Read How We Learn
I like books about how our brains work. Also, this one was printed with orange edges, which is pretty cool.
Genre: non-fiction (educational psychology)
Date started / date finished: 18-May-2018 / 23-May-2018
Originally published in: 2014
Amazon link: How We Learn