When we need to learn something, most of us believe that the best way to do this is to sit down somewhere without distractions and concentrate hard until the knowledge sinks in. But a growing body of evidence suggests that distraction and procrastination are as much a part of how we learn as the ability to focus is.
Barbara Oakley (pictured), professor of engineering at Oakland University in California, is one of the champions of this new school of thought. Oakley runs the world’s most popular Mooc (massive open online course), on the topic of learning how to learn.
Speaking at the TES-Bedales Leadership Conference earlier this month (see video below), Oakley explained how learning something new could be a frustrating experience.
The solution to this, she says, lies in understanding that there are two modes of thinking: focused attention and the "default" or "diffuse" mode in which your thoughts are allowed to wander.
"When you focus in on a task that you know how to do, you’re using a certain way of perceiving the world and running certain brain patterns that you are very familiar with," Oakley says. "But this doesn’t work when you’re learning something completely new."
Take a mental step back
To allow our brains to adapt to the unfamiliar patterns needed to perform a new task, we must take a mental step back and call on a more diffuse kind of thought.
"We often fool ourselves, because we think that we only learn something when we are focusing on it," Oakley says. "But actually, if you can manage to get your attention off it and do something else, it will still be going on in the background."
Oakley’s research has clear implications for the classroom. Teachers must build in opportunities for students to think in default mode if they are to give them the best chance possible of learning new material.
However, it is important to stress that this does not mean giving students time to fiddle with their phones. Oakley suggests defined lengths of focused thinking (usually 25 minutes) with breaks in between where students return to a familiar task, listen to music, watch a video, or just indulge in a few minutes of daydreaming.
This is an edited article from the 10 June edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here