by Katherine Martinko
If you want to learn something new, then it must be meaningful on some level. This is the number one way to retain information, according to Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Willingham is an expert on human learning, a father of four, and the author of a new book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.
In an interview with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, Willingham explained that it doesn’t matter how badly you want to learn something; unless you are able to make a connection to things you already know and care about, it will be difficult to remember that new information.
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Welcome to where parents talk on Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who studies human learning. Daniel Willingham is a researcher at a PhD in cognitive psychology from Harvard University. In 2017, Professor Willingham was asked to serve on the National Board for Education Sciences, by then US President Barack Obama. Professor Willingham, his latest book is called outsmart your brain, why learning is hard, and how you can make it easy. He joins us today from Charlottesville, Virginia, thank you so much for taking the time.
Pleasure to be here.
So I have to tell you the the title of your book is absolutely fascinating, especially for someone like me, who is a continuous learner. But before we get into the book, I want to ask you, you’ve been in this area of research and study that is to say human learning for some time, what strikes you most about what you’ve learned about how humans learn?
Oh, that’s such an interesting question. And there, I guess because I’m a researcher, there’s so many things about how people learn that that I find absolutely fascinating. The thing that’s fascinated me most in the last few years is exactly the subject of this book. And this is as much a thing about individuals and also a thing about how we teach children, which is that our expectations of children’s ability to sort of bring something to the table in their own learning is appropriately really close to zero when children are in preschool. In other words, our expectation is 100%, that if children learn or don’t learn, it’s because of the teacher, it’s up to the teacher to create environments for children to learn. By the time they’re ready to graduate high school, our expectations are very high, about how children should be able to regulate their own learning, we expect them to be able to resist distraction, they should be able to commit things to memory, if they read something that they don’t understand, they should be resourceful in figuring out how they can come to an understanding of it. So we have these very high expectations about their ability to learn and to learn independently. But schools don’t teach them how to do this. And that, that when I say it’s sort of this intersection between human individual ability, and then sort of the systems of how we teach children, that’s the that’s the bit about human learning that I’ve been obsessed with.
So along those lines, then, you know, what would you say that the average person should understand about how humans learn, that perhaps may be game changing for them?
I think the most important thing to recognize is that your instincts about what makes learning effective may or may not be accurate. So for example, the thing and this gets back to actually to your first question, one of the things that when I was in graduate school that got me and I was not yet dedicated to studying human learning, got me really excited, was learning that the
desire to learn something actually has no impact on whether or not you actually remember it. And as someone who had been, you know, a student for 16 years at that point, and had been obsessed with like, trying to cram things into my memory, and then learning like that actually has no bearing at all. I found that fascinating. And it’s one example of a more general trend that what it feels like to learn doesn’t always line up with what actually happens when you’re learning.
That is so interesting, and I’m sure anybody watching or listening to this interview is going to be staggered by that statement. And so how would you go about
breaking that down in terms of better understanding how we learned what are some of the key some examples perhaps that you can share that people need to know about?
Sure. So I mean, again, if you if you’re selective about thinking about your everyday experience, you’ll that will really help you recognize when your memory works well and when it doesn’t. So I mentioned like wanting to remember something doesn’t seem to have much impact. And you kind of already know that like when you meet someone you of course want to remember their name, but you don’t necessarily remember their name and so you try a strategy like repetition if you meet someone and you’re like saying yourself, Bob, Bob, Bob, I gotta remember this person’s name is Bob. And that doesn’t really work. And so what this tells you is desire doesn’t really help sheer repetition doesn’t help. Now think about what? When do you remember? So, if you saw a movie last night, and you mentioned that to me, I said, Oh, what was the movie about? You’re not gonna say like, well, I don’t remember what it was about. I didn’t study it or anything like that. It just sort of seems to come for free, you’re going to remember that? Why is it that you remember movies so well? Well, it’s because the movie is meaningful. Memory loves meaning, anything that’s meaningful to you is going to be much more likely to stick with you. And so when we’re thinking about trying to commit something to memory, this is our number one sort of tool that we can use is to find some way of connecting it to things that you already know, try and make this content meaningful. That’s what’s going to make it stick with you.
That’s very interesting. And for parents watching or listening, and certainly teachers as well, you know, they might come back and say, Well, Professor, Willingham, that’s all well and good. But there’s going to be lots of things that will have absolutely no meaning, you know, algebra comes to mind for myself, among other things. So how do you go about navigating that?
So there are two things I would say. I mean, the first thing is, if it’s not meaningful, that’s the first thing I would try to address. So if I’m an algebra teacher, the last thing I would say to my students is, look, I know this doesn’t make any sense to you. But you know, the province wants you to learn it. And so you know, there’s going to be a test, you’re gonna, you’re just gonna have to cram it. That not only is that obviously terrible for student motivation, but this is probably the most difficult memory problem in the book as a as a memory researcher, the heart, if I were trying to think of the most challenging memory problem, it would be to give you like, shuffle a deck of cards, and then say, here, I want you to memorize the order in which these cards appear. So that’s, that’s sort of job one, if you want to learn something, figure out what it means and set that as your goal. If you really understand what it means memory is mostly going to come along for free. The second thing I would say is that there are times where and sometimes this is teachers will say pretty much exactly that, I recognize that this isn’t very meaningful to you. Nevertheless, I want you to sort of get this under your belt, so that you can take the next step things are going to get meaningful, you know, in a couple of weeks, or whatever it is, but right now, you just you just need to memorize this. So we think about things like when children are learning how to read, learning the correspondence between letter sounds and letter shapes, there’s not really an intrinsic meaning, but that’s a very important thing for them to remember. So this is where mnemonics can be helpful. So those are those little tricks. Like if you’ve heard of memory palaces, where you you imagine like a space that you’re familiar with, like your home or something, and then you’re trying to remember list of items. And you sort of imagine walking around your home and you place items at various locations. These are tricks that you use to make meaningless information more meaningful. And that’s sort of our second weapon of choice. First thing you want to do is, if at all possible, make it meaningful, as a backup if you can’t use mnemonic tricks.
So what I hear you say, if I could summarize were concerns and meaningfulness and learning is a combination of attitude and application.
Absolutely, attitude is really important. I mean, you need to have a can do attitude you need to recognize this may be difficult, and especially where students are concerned. They’re so ready to compare themselves to other students. And I always tell my students, it’s like, Yes, I know that, you know, some kid who this all seems really easy, and they don’t need to study and yet they’re getting everybody knew some kid like that in school. We all found them really irritating. And it was really hard. But most people aren’t like that. For most people. It really does take work. So expect that it’s going to take work, but you can do it. And the other thing is, it’s really not helpful to compare yourself to other people because there’s always someone you know, who seems to be ahead of you. There’s always someone who’s behind. And so the place to focus is really on yourself. Where am I relative to where I was yesterday, or last week, am I
Making progress do I feel good about that? That’s where you really want your kids to focus.
Certainly a very important perspective for parents to hear.
Absolutely. Now, where I think it gets particularly interesting, the title of your book, and the whole focus is, of it is the world we currently live in where knowledge and new knowledge acquisition, you know, literally can happen in the palm of our hand. It’s not solely relegated to the classroom, it’s not solely in the mind of a teacher anymore. Is that a good or a bad thing? And in how, in what ways? If at all? Did that reality influence or impact your book?
I think, Lianne, to answer the first part of your question, I think, generally, it’s a very good thing. access to more information, more ways to learn as an educator, like how can I be against that? Right, that’s wonderful.
The the one area that is a little bit of concern is when people suggest that because we have Google, people don’t really need to know anything anymore. And that’s, that’s really not accurate. And what someone like me who is a cognitive psychologist will tell you is you really do need knowledge, not just in your hand, you really need knowledge in your head.
Google is much faster than looking things up in books. But there are limitations to Google, your brain is still much faster than Google is. So to take a simple example of the kind of thing you’re looking up, take vocabulary words, it still takes, you know, even if it’s integrated into the e book that you’re reading, it takes a few seconds to sort of stop, look up a word, think about what it means think about how it works in the context. And studies show that people don’t have a lot of patience for that type of work. What happens is you sort of you know, if you’re reading a story, you kind of lose the thread of the story you have to if you have to keep stopping and looking up words, right? So you really do want knowledge in your head for that reason. The second reason is that, that when you look things up what your brain is much better at than Google is thinking in terms of context. So let me give you a simple example. Suppose you read Dan spilled his coffee, Tricia jumped up to get a rag. Now, what’s unspoken, there is why Trisha jumped up to get a rag, you are perfectly capable of understanding there’s a causal link between these two sentences, though it didn’t say explicitly, Tricia jumped up to get a rag because Dan’s build up it spilled his coffee, and she’s planning on cleaning up the spill, you understand that immediately. You’re, you know a whole lot about what it means to spill things. And you’re very, your brain is terrific at bringing up just the right knowledge at the right time. So for example, if I said, Tricia spilled her coffee, Dan jumped up howling in pain, you think of a whole different quality of spilling, or Tricia spilled or coffee than jumped up to get her more. This is what your brain is great at. And Google is terrible at. So if you didn’t really understand, like to spill the coffee, Dan jumped up there, what does that mean, the typing into Google, you’re gonna get all kinds of information about coffee and spilling, but you’re not going to get exactly the right type of information. So this sort of specific context specificity your brain is really, really good at and the phone in your hand is terrible at. And that’s another reason you really need knowledge in your mind.
So Professor Willingham, as a professor with students, as a father, with four children, can you tell us, you know, what strikes you in terms of some of the common pitfalls, pain points that you see your students, perhaps even your own children fall into, that causes them stress and anxiety, as it relates to the acquisition of knowledge, you know, tests, etc. I think the thing that I see most frequently, both in my children and in my students is feeling like they’re putting a lot of effort into their schoolwork, and they’re not getting the results that they expect. And, you know, they, they, they’re ready to put in more effort, but they’re not very clear on exactly where the effort should go. So most frequently, they’re if they’re getting bad marks, what they’re thinking is, well, I need I need to study more. And to them studying means sort of sitting in and kind of cramming things into memory. Whereas in most, most schools, there’s it’s a lot more complicated that there are a lot
more pieces that have to be in place in order for learning to really proceed Well, there, they they need to be good listeners, there’s a lot of teacher talk in most schools, and you need to know how to listen effectively. If they’re in more advanced grades, they’re going to be taking notes, they need to know how to take notes. If they’re taking tests, test anxiety might be a problem. So one of the things they they they really need is a diagnosis of which part of things isn’t going well. So so often my students will come in, they’ll say, I’m frustrated. And again, their answer is, I need to study more. And the first thing I say is, well, wait a minute, it could be that you’re studying, it’s just fine. And it’s one of these other pieces that needs to be shored up a little bit. So that I think is the the number one problem that I see the one number one source of frustration, is, you know, things aren’t going very well. But you don’t know exactly why and therefore you don’t know how to address it.
I think that’s such an important point that you’re making. And as I think about what you’re saying, I don’t think I’ve ever really sat there and thought about the integration of all those different individual acts that go into studying, you know, listening, and note taking, and how all that comes together. But it’s a it’s a very important point. Let’s talk about your latest book, How to outsmart your brain. It’s been described as a, quote, revolutionary, comprehensive and accessible guide on how the brain learns, in what ways is it revolutionary?
I think it’s revolutionary. Without this feels funny.
But I think what what I’m most proud of is that it is that it is comprehensive. And that it really
it really is an attempt to to look at all aspects of learning. So there’s not it’s not just about committing things to memory is not just about taking good notes. There’s a chapter about one self concept as a learner how you see yourself as a learner. Because there’s research showing that people who don’t see themselves as learners, one of the real problems they have is when there’s a setback when something goes wrong, they already think of themselves as someone who like maybe doesn’t really belong in school. And so that setback, like a failed test really seems to confirm that. And that really speaks to their persistence, right? They think like, well, I didn’t do like a student who really feels sees themself as a student. When they fail a test. They say, well, I need to work harder. They don’t question whether or not they belong in school. Whereas someone who does question whether they belong in school, they’re not going to persist and work harder on the next test. There’s also a chapter on anxiety 20% of students, I don’t know what the Canadian figures are, they’re probably pretty close to the US figures. I know, in the US, it’s 20% of high school and college students have clinical levels of anxiety, clinical level of anxiety, the definition is, it’s anxiety is bad enough, it’s interfering with things that you feel like you need to do and want to do. So there’s a chapter on on dealing with anxiety. So that’s the that’s the aspect of the book that I’m most proud of is that I’ve I’ve tried to really look at the broad spectrum of things that can address
that influence learning, and address them with very practical things that you can start working on immediately.
Professor Willingham, can you share a couple of examples of exactly how we go about outsmarting our brains? Sure, first, let me tell you why. You know why, what what that means? So, and I think I alluded to this before. One of the things that was striking to me about my students, when I would talk with them about the strategies they employ, is they all sort of seem to veer towards the same strategies, which is strange, because they they all said, like, I just kind of invented this on my own. It’s like, no one told me to do this. And I realized that they were engaging strategies that feel effective to them in the moment, and also aren’t that hard, and they sort of work a little bit, but they’re just they’re not very efficient. And so this is what’s meant by outsmart your brain, you have to recognize that what your brain is going to tell you as a good strategy may not really be the best strategy. So I’ll give you one example. One of the one of the chapters is about knowing when you know something, and this is kind of when you think about it, knowing that you know something is very important when you’re preparing
For a test, because that tells you that you’re done, right? Like, you’re just like, Okay, here’s the chapter, I feel good about this chapter. I think I know everything in this chapter. So you do this sort of self assessment, it turns out that that assessment can be wrong.
And this is, this was another thing that was very surprising to me when I first learned it, because the way you would think that you judge whether or not you know, something is to sort of peek into memory, and see whether or not the information is there. So, you know, if I asked you Do you know what the chemical symbol of helium is the way you an answer, yes, I know that or No, I don’t know that as you look in memory and see if there’s something in there, right? Well, that’s a great way of doing it. But people use other cues as well. One of the most important cues is familiarity. So familiarity, the way psychologists use it is exactly very close to the way people use in everyday conversation. When you see someone out on the street, and you say that person looks familiar. What you mean is I know I’ve encountered them before, but I can’t really tell you anything about them. Right? You don’t say like your spouse looks familiar, like, in one sense, they do. But like that, right? You reserved that for where I know, I’ve seen that before, but I can’t tell you anything else about it. The number one way that students study is by rereading stuff, they read it over and over and over again. And what that does is it increases familiarity. But Familiarity is not the same kind of knowing, as being able to tell you something, right. So it’s one thing for me to understand when you describe something, it’s another thing for me to be able to explain it and describe it. So this is where a lot of students go wrong in the their judgment of whether or not they’re ready for a test. They’re studying by reading something over and over again. They see it over and over again, it feels very familiar. And then mistake familiarity for the ability to explain.
That is opposite. I’m riveted. I’m really, really interesting. Now, you know, as you’re speaking was something that strikes me is, you know, we live in an age where we’ve got a lot of kids who are exceptional learners on one side of the spectrum, or the other. So how does what you’re discussing help that group of individuals?
The principles of learning that I’m describing really are universal. So the and this is something that can be really confusing when we think about schooling. We think of children as individuals as of course they are. And you’ll sometimes hear people say it sort of extend that and say everybody learns differently. In one sense, that’s true. And in another sense, it’s really not true. I mean, everybody’s got a brain and everyone has, you know, a digestive system, everyone has a circulatory system, you don’t really think of like, well, your digestive system may be totally different than mine, your circulatory system maybe took work to operate in a completely different way, you know, I have a heart, I don’t know about you, I don’t know how your blood pumps or if it even does pump, right. And so the same thing is kind of true to the central nervous system. There’s a basic architecture to the way the brain works. And there is a fair amount of consistency across kids. The ways that kids are individuals is more about what they know, coming to the school, to that first day of school. And they’re on like, what their experiences have been both in school and outside of school. So what they know and what they’re able to do, there’s enormous variation in that. There’s a lot of variation, what they’re interested in. But when you talk about like, why does the brain hold on to something versus not? So earlier in our conversation, I said, memory loves meaning. I would absolutely say like, that’s true for everybody. And it doesn’t matter whether you are like way off on one end of the spectrum, where it seems like everything comes really easily to you or your way on the other end of the spectrum where you really struggle with most things in school. There are a set of principles that are consistent across individuals, and that’s what I’m really emphasizing in this book.
So let’s talk a little bit about the science and the research that you uncovered in the course of putting together this book. Anything in there specifically, that you yourself as a researcher were struck by in particular
we’ve already talked about
Got a couple of things that I found really startling and interesting and mean, one one is this sort of pervasive
sort of misalignment between our own sense of what’s best for us cognitively, like, what’s the way that we’re going to learn most effectively. Versus, and again, I want to be clear, it’s not that like what students tend to do is just terrible and doesn’t work at all. I mean, you know, they’re, they’re in school, they are sort of getting along, they’re learning. This is they’re not,
they’re not as efficient as they could be. And so that misalignment was one thing that was very striking to me, we also mentioned something that I first encountered in graduate school, which is the fact that your desire to learn doesn’t really have any impact on whether or not you actually do learn, it’s actually it’s the cognitive processes you bring to whatever content it is that you’re encountering. That’s what makes things stick or, or not stick.
So that I think I’ll probably stick with those is the things that I was continued to be most excited about and fascinated by.
Many parents today, you know, come from a different generation, we’re taught in a different way, we’re not exposed to all of the platforms, and vehicles that are currently available for learning all these different tools that their children might be exposed to. And, you know, there’s going to be examples and times in their lives when they’re, their child is going to ask them for help. And so what would you could you offer to parents in terms of trying to help their kids or support their children with their own learning, perhaps things that you have employed yourself as a father,
I would, the main thing I would do is stay be in touch with your child’s teacher. Most teachers are universally eager to partner with parents, they would they love the idea that you are going to be supporting what they’re doing in the classroom, in your home. And you of course, want to be complementing not contradicting what your child was learning in the classroom. So I think that coordination makes, it makes sense on both sides. And if you know that, this frequently comes up in mathematics where it’s like, I learned this way, I’m old school, and then my my kids comes home, and there’s some new method and they tell me it’s good doesn’t make any sense. Talk to your teacher about that. Say, like, my child is asking for help with homework, and I, you know, I don’t I don’t get the methods that you’re using. What do you know, here’s what I know, how do you suggest that I best support my child, and teachers have thought about this, and they’re, they’re going to be able to help you.
I think the timing of your book is so interesting, for so many reasons, not the least of which is where we find ourselves currently in the world, in this pandemic, where a lot of parents have had the greatest exposure to how their kids learn, probably ever. And, and in the, in the classroom, teachers, many of them have had to reinvent how to engage kids in learning from going, you know, from virtual to in person. So with that kind of backdrop, what can you offer in terms of, you know, things that you found in the course of researching and writing your book, that may be helpful to really, in many cases, not just relearn, but learn things in a new way, both for the student and the teacher?
Yeah, that’s, that’s such a great point. And it, it the the timing of this book is oddly,
oddly apt, because what what the book is really about is
increasing student independence, helping students be resourceful in learning on their own. And as I mentioned, early in our conversation, this is something that we increasingly expect of kids as they get older. It’s also something that we very abruptly increased our expectations with the pandemic. All of a sudden, kids were at home, and we were hoping that they were going to sit in front of the screen, even though there were there maybe wasn’t an adult nearby to, to encourage them to do that. Do much more learning on their own.
And so yeah, this is how much of that sort of thing we’re going to see in the future remains unclear. But there’s always been some of it and there’s in the future bound to be at least as much as there has been in the past and we may see a reappearance of what we saw on the pandemic. So absolutely. I think we should have all of the be aware of all the tools that are available.
To support our children in doing that independent learning,
any key takeaways that you would like readers of your book to leave with?
I think the main takeaway is there, there are lots of tools that are available to problems that are sort of universal and learning. So what what I’ve done in the book, the way I mentioned before, is sort of separated by tasks. Each chapter corresponds to one learning task, taking notes, listening to a teacher, talk and making sense of it, reading complicated text, and so on. And for each one, there’s a little description of the psychology that underlies the process, and then kind of a selection of strategies that you can undertake. And so what I really encourage parents and students to do is experiment, like there are all these different ways that you can approach it, there’s not just one best way that absolutely everybody has to use for each of these processes. I have between five and seven different tips, things that you can try. And so experiment and see what works for you and see where you get good results. That’s the main thing I would say is, remain flexible. Be self aware, remain open and try things out and see what works for you.
Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, and author of outsmart your brain, why learning is hard, and how you can make it easy. Thank you so much for your time, and your incredible insight today. Oh, pleasure. Thank you so much.
This is just one of Willingham’s fascinating insights into how the brain learns and holds knowledge. As he told Castelino, the American education system has high expectations for students to become self-sufficient learners by the end of high school—capable of resisting distraction, good at committing facts to memory, and resourceful in research, among other skills. And yet, schools fail to teach these skills, and the result is a real struggle to learn. Indeed, when students were forced to become independent learners as soon as the pandemic hit, for many that did not go well.
Willingham said, “The thing that I see most frequently, both in my children and in my students, is feeling like they’re putting a lot of effort into their schoolwork, [but] they’re not getting the results that they expect. [Often] they are ready to put in more effort, but they’re not very clear on exactly where the effort should go.”
Studying more is not necessarily the answer. There are numerous components to learning that must be in place for knowledge to be retained. These include knowing how to listen effectively to a teacher, being able to take comprehensive notes, coping with anxiety in test settings, and even viewing oneself as someone who belongs in school in order to recover better from setbacks like a poor test score. Then there is the constant quest to fit seemingly meaningless information into a broader context that makes it come alive for students.
When asked about the abundance of information now available to students online, Willingham said that access to information is always good from the perspective of an educator, but he is concerned about people assuming that the Internet can replace their own mental knowledge base:
“You really do need knowledge in your mind, not just in your hand. Your brain is still much faster than Google is.” It takes less time to recall a thought than to look up a definition online. The brain is also far better at something called “conte
xt specificity,” which can make connections between two seemingly separate ideas. Students should not underestimate the importance of packing their own brains with information for future reference.
Students are unique individuals, but Willingham maintains that there is “a basic architecture to the way the brain works [and] a fair amount of consistency across kids.” Certain principles, such as “memory loves meaning,” hold true for all. Understanding this can help to improve quality of learning for students everywhere and equip them with the tools to “outsmart” their brains.
Listen to the full interview or watch the video here.
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