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Q&A: Common misconceptions about how humans learn

POSTED May 17, 2017 2:19 a.m.
Ulrich Boser was a slow learner as a child, a fact that ultimately motivated him to study learning. At some point, Boser says he broke through. But learning never became easy for him. Instead, he came to accept that he would have to work harder and longer than many of his classmates.

"I repeated kindergarten and spent a little time in special education," says Boser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., where he researches education. "Learning was very difficult for me. I start the book with a scene from fourth grade where I cheated off my neighbor and was unable to read my homework or to answer basic questions."

Boser attributes his grit partly to a "German-ness" he picked up from his immigrant parents. But he also developed strategies along the way, and he began at an early age to think critically about how he learned.

Boser's new book, "Learn Better," unpacks effective learning, destroying a number of myths along the way. Boser begins with the need for value and meaning in learning, as well as focus and objectives. He also deals with the technique of "chunking" small packets of information, working for existing knowledge, the role of analogies, and the need to think critically about our own learning as we progress.

This interview as been edited for clarity and length.

What's new about this book?

I show that there are a lot of misconceptions about learning. For example, people believe in highlighting text, although there's little evidence that it helps. Instead, we know that self-quizzing and deliberation show a lot of impact. We also know how people can better become experts using things like analogies, and that breaking material into smaller "chunks" aids mastery.

Is "learning by doing" a good strategy?

We have this idea that kids just need to get their hands dirty and just need to dive in to learn. At times, that kind of practice makes sense. But when you are just starting out, you are going to need background knowledge along with some sort of instruction. Direct instruction is much more effective in the beginning phases of learning. But you need less and less direct instruction the more expertise you have, and at some point, instruction begins to get in the way.

You emphasize that short-term memory is very short and very small.

Yes, experts increasingly believe that everything we learn from knitting to race car driving happens in short-term memory. The issue with short-term memory is that it's much shorter than we think, and we can only really absorb information in very small chunks at a time. That’s why good teachers explain things in ways that make it easy for you to understand, so they aren’t creating a huge drag on short-term memory.

This recalls the arguments of Dan Willingham at the University of Virginia, that background knowledge is the key to reaching higher levels of reading. If you want better readers, you need to give them more knowledge to link with what they read.

Yes, Willingham calls these "schema" that allows us to make sense of information. You can't understand baseball if you don't have the basic vocabulary.

In a similar vein, what do you make of E.D. Hirsch's argument that schools that emphasize problem-solving without building a store of knowledge are short-changing students?

Content is incredibly important. Richard Mayer at the University of California, Santa Barbara argues that prior knowledge is the best predictor of what you are able to learn. But content isn't everything. All of the dates and facts are not helpful unless they are part of a bigger system and you can see how all the facts relate to each other. You need to have meaning, not just content.

You talk a lot about the role of analogy in learning.

What experts do is think in systems, comparisons and analogies. If you are solving new problems you take information from older problems and apply them in a new way. Analogies get a bad rap, often associated with IQ tests, but they really are at the heart of any rich form of expertise.

And even when you achieve expertise, deliberate learning and feedback are necessary to make further progress, right?

Yes. Simply doing something doesn’t mean you are going to learn it. You need to have goals and feedback and monitoring to make real progress. One of my favorite anecdotes involves a Canadian surgeon, Dr. Mark Bernstein in Toronto. He set out to virtually eliminate errors in the operating room. He didn’t have any teacher or instructor. All he did was write down his team’s mistakes. And that little tweak in his practice, that little bit of monitoring, brought his errors down by about 50 percent. This may not sound like much, but the implications of this idea are enormous. We need monitoring and feedback to learn.

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