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

3. Layer Two: Systems Within Systems

  • Thanks to the use of functional MRI scanners (fMRI), scientists like Nancy Kanwisher at MIT have discovered our brain has functional regions that specialize in things like facial recognition, letter recognition, word recognition, music, pitch, and many others. There is even a region that lights up when you are thinking about what other people are thinking. Using another type of imaging called diffusion tensor imaging, a cousin to fMRI, a Swedish scientist Torkel Klingberg was able to understand how different sections of the cerebral cortex connect to each other.
  • Studies show that the brain is much more capable of storing things in long-term memory when it is curious. It happens when you know just enough that you can file away more. This is what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development. You can promote curiosity by framing knowledge in terms of digestible information gaps. This can be done by asking questions, which is the so-called Socratic method. Connecting curriculum with student interests can help as can calling out common misconceptions about a topic before diving in. Skimming material prior to reading it in earnest can set up questions that only a careful perusal will answer.

4. Layer Three: Revolution

  • The main goal of teaching should be helping students bring the inert knowledge they learn to life. Memory entails the mere storing of information. Learning involves abstracting meaningful rules and patterns from that information and putting them to work. The way most classrooms package and deliver information isn’t working. It results in inert bodies of knowledge.
  • In addition to some history of learning theory featuring Piaget and Pappert, we encounter the concepts of inside-out learning (going from the parts to the whole) and outside-in learning (going from the whole to the parts). We naturally engage in outside-in when we act as scientists as we try to figure out the world around us. Sanjay believes that we need to feature both in our schools. We need a wider tolerance for diverse student motivations and interests (outside-in). We also need to teach useful, hard knowledge (inside-out). In some cases, we need to do some overlearning for some material like math facts so they can be summoned during problem-solving with little effort. When it comes to reading, teaching phonics (part to whole) appears to be a superior technique to “While Language” where students are expected to learn whole words.

5. Layer Four: Thinking About Thinking

  • Sanjay supports Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory as a well-supported indictment of the idea of general intelligence. He also finds the idea of “multiple learning styles” as a noxious idea. He notes that almost all cognitive tasks invoke both hemispheres of our brain, although the concept of right-versus-left-brain dominance may be marginally useful. Certain types of learning are easier to pull off during certain critical periods of development. Verbal language learning is chief among them. When applying research to education we should go by way of cognitive psychology rather than neuroscience.
  • The concepts of retrieval strength and storage strength are key here. Either can be strong or weak. Repeating something over and over won’t do much for storage strength. It just makes retrieval strength strong in the short term. This fortifies the argument for spacing access to the same content. It’s also important to realize that acts of retrieval can modify memory. When storage strengths are high, retrieval strength fades slowly. Effortful retrieval adds to storage strength. There doesn’t appear to be any practical limit on the brain’s storage capacity, but we can only retrieve so much at once.
  • The idea of interleaving states that we should go from one thing to another and come back several times rather than focusing too long on one thing. It would be like a golfer going from club to club as opposed to hitting the same club over and over again. This process creates more desirable difficulty. Since you are working on something that you worked on a while ago, your retrieval is more effortful and therefore more effective. In short, if you are using gut instinct to learn, you are probably wrong.
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