The research defies what we’ve been told: How We Learn (2014) and The Handbook of Language Socialization (2014)

I’ve recently had the opportunity to encounter many resources that address how we absorb information.

Among the resources is a book entitled How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why It Happens (2014).

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website notes:

Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

“In the tradition of The Power of Habit [2012] and Thinking, Fast and Slow [2011] 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?

How our brains absorb and retain information

“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.

Why teachers should give final exams on the first day of class

“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.”

[End of excerpt]

Better ways to learn

An Oct, 6, 2014 New York Times article that discusses How We Learn (2014) is entitled: “Better Ways to Learn.”

The opening paragraphs in the article read:

“Does a good grade always mean a student has learned the material? And does a bad grade mean a student just needs to study more?

“In the new book ‘How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens’ (Random House), Benedict Carey, a science reporter for The New York Times, challenges the notion that a high test score equals true learning. He argues that although a good grade may be achieved in the short term by cramming for an exam, chances are that most of the information will be quickly lost. Indeed, he argues, most students probably don’t need to study more – just smarter.

“Mr. Carey offers students old and young a new blueprint for learning based on decades of brain science, memory tests and learning studies. He upends the notion that ‘hitting the books’  is all that is required to be a successful student, and instead offers a detailed exploration of the brain to reveal exactly how we learn, and how we can maximize that potential.”

[End of excerpt]

The Organized Mind (2014)

A related text of interest is The Organized Mind (2014), which argues that the brain has limited capacity, and describes how to address the limitation.

The Handbook of Language Socialization (2014)

How we learn is also discussed in The Handbook of Language Socialization (2014), which I learned about when reading a study, focusing upon social interactions among a clique of popular girls at a California elementary school, by Marjorie Harness Goodwin.

Among the chapters of interest in the latter handbook is Chapter 10, “Literacy Socialization,” by Laura Sterponi. Sterponi’s research demonstrates that in many primary classrooms, while a standard, “official” method for teaching literacy is in place, children tend to surreptitiously find more enjoyable and useful ways to go about accessing texts, in collaborative information-gathering projects – at times under school desks, and at other times in school libraries, when teachers aren’t looking. Sterponi’s overview of the topic warrants a close read.

Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (2009)

The resourcefulness of the surreptitious young readers – you can read details in the full text of the chapter, available at the first link in the previous paragraph – brings to mind Ellen Langer’s study, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (2009).

An Oct. 22, 2014 New York Times article about Ellen Langer’s work is entitled: “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?”

Everything inside was designed to conjure 1959

The opening paragraph of the article reads:

  • One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside – including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around – [was] designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.

[End of excerpt]

Ellen Langer’s definition of “mindfulness” appears to differ, to a degree, from the definition associated with the mindfulness-based stress reduction program developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

An Oct. 23, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “Old Masters: After 80, some people don’t retire. They reign.”

The problem with positive thinking

Also of interest is an Oct. 24, 2014 New York Times article entitled: “The Problem With Positive Thinking.”

An excerpt reads:

  • Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.
  • Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real” by dwelling on the challenges or obstacles. But this is too extreme a correction. Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies.
  • What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.
  • This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

[End of excerpt]

Early childhood learning

The above-noted resources are also of relevance with regard to recent research regarding Full Day Kindergarten.

Related topics

Related resources include:

De-testing and De-grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization (2013)

Mindfulness, 25th Anniversary Edition (2014)

An additional related topic concerns our memory.

A Jan. 23, 2015 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Rewired: Learning to tame a noisy brain. (Or, how you can use the power of neuroplasticity).”

A Feb. 4, 2015 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Researchers link common over-the-counter drugs to dementia.”

Memory and dementia

An additional update involves a May 3, 2015 CBC article entitled: “Canada’s version of Hogewey dementia village recreates ‘normal’ life: Canadian facility creates similar false-reality experience based on Holland’s Hogewey.”

A conceptually related May 3, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: Why are older Danish women so happy? Danish women explain why ageing in a country that looks after its citizens is ‘like one long really fun holiday.’ ”


A July 31, 2015 article is entitled: “No, you can’t ‘be the change’ alone.”

An April 13, 2017 CBC The Current article is entitled: “Roughhousing benefits kids, suggests Quebec daycare guide.”


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