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Book review: Learning How to Learn

A student-friendly guide that's more than just buzzwords

Book review: learning how to learn

A student-friendly guide that's more than just buzzwords

Learning How to Learn: how to succeed in school without spending all your time studying; a guide for kids and teens

Authors: Barbara Oakley, Terrence Sejnowski with Alistair McConville

Publisher: Tarcherperigee

Details: 240pp, £13.99

ISBN: 978 0143132547

Over the past few years, some of education’s most notorious fads and gimmicks have justified themselves by claiming they will help you “learn how to learn”. Brain Gym and learning styles, for example, have zero evidence of impact, but they will often be defended with “learning how to learn” buzzwords. As a result, it’s understandable that the very phrase itself has become an indicator that some educational snake oil is just around the corner.

Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski is a glorious exception to this rule, reclaiming the phrase for people who care about the research and evidence. The book is written for children and gives a very accessible account of how our brains actually learn, accompanied by practical activities that you can put into action straight away.

As well as rescuing the idea of “learning how to learn”, this book is a landmark in another way. As far as I know, it is the first attempt to explain some of the latest research in cognitive psychology to children and not just teachers.

This is a particularly valuable task because so many traditional teacher injunctions can seem like they have no purpose other than to make children’s lives a misery. This book explains in a pupil-friendly way why things such as practice and drill really do matter, and how in the long term they will make your life easier and save you the misery of late-night cramming and exam anxiety.

My favourite part is a series of extended metaphors about working-memory and long-term memory. Working memory is compared to your school bag and long-term memory to your locker. You can store a lot more memories in your locker than your school bag, but your locker can be hard to access. What you need to do is to create a set of what the author calls “brain-links” that allow you to connect your school bag and your locker instantly. It sounds a bit clunky explained like this, but the illustrations do a great job of clarifying it.

As well as the locker and school bag, there’s also an “attentional octopus” with only four arms. This is designed to illustrate the limitations of working memory. Oakley and Sejnowski are two university professors with a track record of creating such inspiring and quirky analogies. They produced an online course, or MOOC, also called Learning How to Learn, which became the most popular in the world last year, despite being shot in Oakley’s basement on a budget of just $5,000. For this book, they’ve brought in a British teacher, Alistair McConville, to help tailor the content to children.

One question I had when reading this book was about its potential use and target audience. The kind of children who spontaneously read books on study skills are of course those who are least likely to need them. What about everyone else? How can teachers make sure all children benefit from the messages in this book?

If you teach a study skills unit, this would be something you could use as a class reader. Each chapter has activities at the end of it, so you could almost use it as a textbook, reading a chapter together and then doing the activities at the end. And there are chapters within it that would be worthwhile using in any lesson. Many teachers will begin GCSE or A-level courses with an overview of what pupils have to learn over the course. At the same time, you could introduce some of the messages from this book about how to build long-term memory, and how spacing out practice across the two years of the course will be so much more effective than cramming the night before the exam. 

At the moment, the challenge for both teachers and pupils is to integrate the research outlined in this book into their own teaching and learning. That’s hard for adults to do, but it’s especially hard for pupils who will probably have less experience of effective learning. So perhaps the next step is for either the authors or someone else to weave some of these ideas into subject-specific resources. For example, in one chapter, the authors explain the value of interleaved practice. They then say that most textbooks will not provide interleaved practice, so it’s up to the pupils to adapt the textbook questions.

That’s great advice, but of course, it also makes one wonder why most textbook questions aren’t interleaved? Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where most learning resources embodied these principles of learning, rather than one where the onus is on pupils to fix the problem?

Still, the first step in creating such a world is to make sure that these important principles are more widely understood, and this book is a vital contribution to that aim.

Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths About Education. She tweets @daisychristo


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