Grasp: The Science of Transforming How We Learn by Sanjay Sarma with Luke Yoquinto


Grasp: The Science of Transforming How We Learn by Sanjay Sarma with Luke Yoquinto tells the story of teaching and learning during the last hundred plus years. They explain what works and what doesn’t. They make it clear that learning should be spaced rather than crammed at the last minute, that different concepts should be interleaved, and that the effort one uses to retrieve memories helps reinforce them. While we need to teach hard facts, we also need to let students use their hands to wield them. This book is a must-read for teachers and learners alike and would make a great textbook for any introduction to education course.

Introduction: The Adventure Begins

  • The big metaphor used here is the educational winnower. From the beginning, education is designed to sort students into gifted programs and elite schools. We think we are testing aptitude when we are mainly testing a student’s environment and experiences. At the end of the trail is the opportunity to innovate, which mostly ends up in the hands of males from wealthy homes (patent-holding inventors). In addition to gender, the great winnowers include poverty, expectations, and environments that lack access to language and feature lots of stress. In our efforts to standardize education we have made it too damn hard. We need to shed the myth that serious learning must be difficult and use what we know about the brain to make it more user friendly so we can save more students from the winnowing process.

Part One: Learning Is Science and Science Is Learning

1. The Learning Divide

  • Through the lens of a robotics course at MIT we learn that any education scheme worth its salt must not only deliver knowledge but do so in a way that is highly engaging. It must activate that knowledge so its owner can do real work in the world. Next Sanjoy plots the path that education took from the beginning of the twentieth century away from the holistic approach of John Dewey towards the reductionist path of Edward Thorndike. This lead to standardized education where repetition ruled based to an extent on behaviorism. IQ tests were used to sort students into tracks and if you weren’t sorted into the college track, you weren’t going to be prepared for college. Not only is this approach racist and classist, but it also conflicts with how people really learn.

2. Layer One: Slug Cells and School Bells

  • It is well established that spacing out your study rather than cramming all a once leads to more retention. This is even true for invertebrates without brains. Here we encounter Eric Kandel’s work with the large neurons in sea slugs. This lead to a Nobel prize for describing the connection between memory and the action of individual neurons. Repetition creates more connections known as synaptic strength. The concept of interleaving suggests that while you are putting space between learning efforts on the same content, you should work on learning another subject. It seems that universities feature a few high-stakes tests each semester with no return to the content in subsequent semesters in many disciplines. This goes against what we know about the spacing effect. Corporations, however, seem to know better as they teach and test frequently. This is due to the fact that their employees must understand the key concepts.. It’s clear that frequent low-stakes quizzes that continually call back earlier material promote efficient learning.
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