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Learning how to learn

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 12 April 2019

Since the release of the Tomorrow’s Schools report last December, the education community has been talking about nearly every aspect of school organisation: Who should govern schools? For what term lengths should principals be appointed? How should schools be funded?

These questions are important. But by focusing on the organisational aspects of our education system, we are neglecting what is going on inside classrooms. How do children learn? Are our children learning? How can schools best teach students how to learn?

To help explain these learning processes, the Initiative is delighted to host Professor Barbara Oakley for a public lecture in Auckland next month.

Oakley is a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Michigan. Over the past several years, she has reinvigorated the learning space by using findings from neuroscience to determine new and better ways for learners to gain knowledge.

In 2014, Oakley wrote A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra), a New York Times bestseller.

A year later, Oakley started her free online course called Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. In the crowded world of MOOCs (“massive open online course”), Oakley’s course has become one of the most popular. More than two million people have enrolled in it.

Using science and her experience as a learner and a teacher, Oakley has distilled the ingredients of effective learning. They include finding the right balance between focused learning and time to digest new information. She recommends delivering knowledge in bite-size pieces instead of encouraging “binge-learning”. She stresses the importance of practice and rehearsal.

From a neuroscientific perspective, the challenge for learners is to ensure new information gets stored permanently in the brain. There is little point to learning things only to forget them quickly. Oakley’s methods are all geared towards hard-wiring new knowledge in the brain.

Like every good teacher, Oakley knows how to convey her message in an engaging and even entertaining way. It is not often that a professor of engineering captivates and mesmerises a big audience, but we saw her do just that at a conference last year.

By hosting Oakley in Auckland next month, we want to help spread her ideas to New Zealand.

Perhaps that would lead to a genuine conversation here about how our students can learn, not just how our schools are organised.

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