How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

by Benedict Carey


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In the tradition of The Power of Habit and Thinking, Fast and Slow comes a practical, playful, and endlessly fascinating guide to what we really know about learning and memory today—and how we can apply it to our own lives.

From an early age, it is drilled into our heads: Restlessness, distraction, and ignorance are the enemies of success. We’re told that learning is all self-discipline, that we must confine ourselves to designated study areas, turn off the music, and maintain a strict ritual if we want to ace that test, memorize that presentation, or nail that piano recital.

But what if almost everything we were told about learning is wrong? And what if there was a way to achieve more with less effort?

In How We Learn, award-winning science reporter Benedict Carey sifts through decades of education research and landmark studies to uncover the truth about how our brains absorb and retain information. What he discovers is that, from the moment we are born, we are all learning quickly, efficiently, and automatically; but in our zeal to systematize the process we have ignored valuable, naturally enjoyable learning tools like forgetting, sleeping, and daydreaming. Is a dedicated desk in a quiet room really the best way to study? Can altering your routine improve your recall? Are there times when distraction is good? Is repetition necessary? Carey’s search for answers to these questions yields a wealth of strategies that make learning more a part of our everyday lives—and less of a chore.

By road testing many of the counterintuitive techniques described in this book, Carey shows how we can flex the neural muscles that make deep learning possible. Along the way he reveals why teachers should give final exams on the first day of class, why it’s wise to interleave subjects and concepts when learning any new skill, and when it’s smarter to stay up late prepping for that presentation than to rise early for one last cram session. And if this requires some suspension of disbelief, that’s because the research defies what we’ve been told, throughout our lives, about how best to learn.

The brain is not like a muscle, at least not in any straightforward sense. It is something else altogether, sensitive to mood, to timing, to circadian rhythms, as well as to location and environment. It doesn’t take orders well, to put it mildly. If the brain is a learning machine, then it is an eccentric one. In How We Learn, Benedict Carey shows us how to exploit its quirks to our advantage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812984293
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/09/2015
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 152,685
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Benedict Carey is an award-winning science reporter who has been at The New York Times since 2004, and one of the newspaper’s most emailed reporters. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor’s degree in math and from Northwestern University with a master’s in journalism, and has written about health and science for twenty-five years. He lives in New York City.

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Chapter One

Excerpted from "How We Learn"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Benedict Carey.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Broaden the Margins ix

Part 1 Basic Theory

1 The Story Maker 3

The Biology of Memory

2 The Power of Forgetting 21

A New Theory of Learning

Part 2 Retention

3 Breaking Good Habits 45

The Effect of Context on Learning

4 Spacing Out 65

The Advantage of Breaking Up Study Time

5 The Hidden Value of Ignorance 80

The Many Dimensions of Testing

Part 3 Problem Solving

6 The Upside of Distraction 107

The Role of Incubation in Problem Solving

7 Quitting Before You're Ahead 131

The Accumulating Gifts of Percolation

8 Being Mixed Up 149

Interleaving as an Aid to Comprehension

Part 4 Tapping the Subconscious

9 Learning Without Thinking 175

Harnessing Perceptual Discrimination

10 You Snooze, You Win 195

The Consolidating Role of Sleep

Conclusion: The Foraging Brain 213

Appendix: Eleven Essential Questions 223

Acknowledgments 229

Notes 231

Index 245

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