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A Learning Expert’s Biggest Piece of Advice for Parents

Creativity Habits & Productivity
A Learning Expert’s Biggest Piece of Advice for Parents


  • How the Pomodoro Technique can help you learn anything
  • How our education system can finally change for the better
  • How poor short-term memory can actually help you learn

Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering whose research involves bioengineering with an emphasis on neuroscience and cognitive psychology. She also teaches one of the world’s most popular online courses, Learning How to Learn. She recently joined rocket scientist turned award-winning law professor Ozan Varol for a conversation about her latest book, and how learners of all ages can succeed in their chosen field of study.

Ozan: I was fortunate to get an advance copy of Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, which I devoured over the course of two days. I put down the book and immediately had two thoughts. First, adults can benefit as much as teenagers from the principles revealed in the book. Second, the book should be required reading in every school across the globe.

The book is brilliant, in no small part because it fills a huge gap: Schools don’t offer any courses on learning how to learn, even though it’s a foundational skill necessary for the mastery of any subject.

What motivated you to write the book?

Barbara: Over the years, I’ve been inundated with requests by parents for information to help their kids learn. Not just a “here’s how to study” kind of book, but a “here’s why you study in certain ways to make your learning stick.” Over the past two decades, we’ve learned a great deal from neuroscience about how the brain works—which means we now understand why certain approaches are important in learning.

It’s remarkable what a difference it makes when kids know why. For example, virtually every parent tells their child it’s important to get enough sleep each night. But they don’t tell kids why they should sleep—after all, it’s only a few years ago that researchers themselves began to discover why sleep is so important. Sleep, incidentally, is when new synaptic connections form and strengthen—it’s when the architecture of learning is formed.

Once kids understand the why, they begin to realize why it’s so important to avoid all-nighters and last-minute cramming. It’s knowing why that creates the motivation to change. Knowing why can make a tremendous difference in kids’ abilities to succeed in their studies.

Ozan: You’ve authored numerous groundbreaking books for adults. What was it like writing a book for teens? What challenges did you face?

Barbara: Oh my! I’ve written for top scientific research journals as well as for publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And let me tell you, it’s tougher writing for teens. Young people are looking for straightforward, easy-to-understand explanations, not dazzlingly complex and erudite wordplay. Working on Learning How to Learn with my co-author Alistair McConville, who has decades of teaching experience at a K-12 school in the UK, was extraordinarily helpful. I found that if I wrote what I thought was a “perfect” 5,000 word chapter, it could generally be winnowed to about 2,500 more-easily-understandable and directly to-the-point words.

I’m a little spoiled after having written for a younger popular audience. I look at a lot of academic writing now and can’t help but think, “That’s a simple idea made needlessly complex.”


Ozan: How can we make the education system more effective in teaching students the principles in the book?

Barbara: I’d love to see school systems have “leverage your brain”-type courses on learning that would teach the ideas of the book. And certainly, many schools do have study and academic skills courses that could benefit from these ideas.

But one of the best ways to implement the ideas into a middle school or high school curriculum is to take some of the free videos (based on the Learning How to Learn book) that are going up on Microsoft’s educational platform. Then turn the first two to three days of any 5th grade through 12th grade class into a fun learning bootcamp. Each day, play two or three of the videos on issues like how to avoid procrastination, how to step back to help in solving a problem, and how to create brain links to help your working memory with the material. Have the kids do a table talk to discuss each idea after it’s been introduced.

After day two (or three), launch into the usual class material—whether it’s biology, algebra, history, or what-have-you. You’ll find the kids are far more excited about learning the material. You’ll make faster progress through the subject matter that more than makes up for the “loss” of a few days. And you, as well as the students, will suddenly have a new common language for learning, which helps you to debug individual student problems. You can revisit ideas through the course to strengthen students’ understanding of how to apply them—for example, when to use the Pomodoro method, or when to step back from focusing to help build their understanding.

With this bootcamp-reinforcement approach, you’ll have given kids learning tools they’ll be able to use in this class, in other classes, and in all their learning for the rest of their lives.

Ozan: In the book, you use lots of metaphors—from pinball machines to friendly space aliens to octopuses—to convey key concepts. I’m a huge fan of metaphors, but I often hear criticism from others who believe metaphors “dumb down” and trivialize important information. How do you respond?

Barbara: Those who criticize the use of metaphors are often not aware of neuroscientific findings about the power of metaphor in teaching. Creating a neural pattern about anything—say, how water flows—can be difficult. When it comes to figuring out how water flows, for example, babies will spend several years, right into the toddler stage, being fascinated by it.

But once you’ve got the idea of how water flows, you can use it to help a student understand how electrical current flows. Without the use of water flow, it can be very tough to understand electrical current flow. Does water break down as a metaphor for electrical current flow when you get to a deep, quantum level? Yes—every metaphor breaks down eventually. When that happens, you just throw it away and get a new metaphor. Incidentally, the great mathematical quant Emanuel Derman pointed out (in his book Models. Behaving. Badly.), that even mathematical equations are, in the end, just metaphors.

Ozan: You’re a parent yourself. What advice do you have for other parents in helping their children learn how to learn?

Barbara: To my mind, an important part of a child’s education is teaching them to not only follow their passions, but to broaden their passions.

Most kids in decent school systems end up learning to read well even as they don’t necessary end up liking or doing well at math. But in today’s world, a lack of proficiency with math will close the door to all sorts of exciting potential careers. So my biggest advice to U.S. parents is, give your child 20 minutes or so a day of extra practice with math, using a program like Kumon or Smartick. Your child may not like it at the time, but she or he will thank you as they grow to maturity and find that they have exciting opportunities, even in seemingly non-analytical careers involving art or writing. A comfort with the quantitative is invaluable nowadays.


Ozan: Most people complain about their poor short-term memory, but in the book, you explain why this can actually be a good thing. How so?

Barbara: A “bad” short-term memory means you can’t hold ideas in mind very easily—your attention wanders. But research has shown that this type of “bad” memory gives a special advantage—you are far more likely to be creative! Do you have to work harder to keep up with the “intellectual Joneses” and grasp the new ideas you are confronted with? Absolutely. But you would not want to trade the creativity it gives you.

Another benefit of a poor short-term memory is that you have to build structures in long-term memory to help you understand complex ideas. In other words, you really have to wrestle with the ideas, turning them into the simplest possible conceptions, in order to hold them in working memory and understand them yourself. Surprisingly, this ability to simplify is a valuable gift. You can see shortcuts and simple solutions that the person with a strong working memory just can’t see.

Ozan: Do teenagers learn differently than adults? If so, how?

Barbara: Mostly, teenagers learn in the same ways as adults. It’s just that what you learn as a teenager sticks a bit more easily than what you learn as, say, a sixty-year-old. In my opinion, one of the best things you can do for a teenager is to teach them the Pomodoro Technique, which helps them to improve their ability to focus. Here’s how to do a “Pomodoro”:

  1. Turn off all distractions. (No ringing cell phone or computer pop-ups!)
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Focus as intently as you can on whatever you are working on, just bringing your attention back if you find it straying.
  4. Once the timer goes off, relax and reward yourself for 5 to 10 minutes before going on to do another Pomodoro. The rest and relaxation is actually a critical part of the process—it allows the brain to consolidate and better understand what is learned.

On a side note, if you end up going longer than 25 minutes, because you really get into it, that’s okay. Just make sure you relax and reward yourself when you finish the period of focus.

Ozan: You co-teach one of the world’s largest online courses, Learning How to Learn, with over 2 million students across the globe. How can we make online learning more accessible and interesting to teenagers?

Barbara: Fun videos with research meat to them are precisely what young people are looking for. With the support of Arizona State University, I’m just finalizing a set of sixteen 5-minute videos for kids and teens that are funny, have great animations, are fast-paced, and give youngsters a lot of the insights they need to learn more effectively. These videos will be available for free on Microsoft’s worldwide educational platform and many other platforms. I’m also helping to produce the videos with native-speaking stars of many different languages around the world: Chinese, Arabic, Cantonese, Russian, Ukrainian, Portuguese, Spanish, Norwegian, Kazakh, and more. It’s so exciting—people around the world both need and want these materials, and now, for the first time, they’re going to be freely available!

Ozan: Which one of the strategies in the book do you most often use personally?

Barbara: The Pomodoro Technique. I’d be lost without it.

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