Our Education System Conflicts With the Science of Learning

Science writer Benedict Carey explains in his new book that the brain is a forager, not a school learner. Carey advocates for teaching students more about how and why they learn.

Science writer Benedict Carey lays out everything we know about learning and memory in his new book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. What he found was that our brains aren't designed to learn in a ritual manner such as with the typical educational setting. Instead, the brain is a forager designed to pick up information on the go. This has major implications for how students study, he says. There is no one-size-fits-all tactic for effective learning.


Carey recently spoke to USA Today's Greg Toppo about what the education system gets wrong about learning.

"The main thing we've gotten wrong is that we all think of learning in terms of education, in terms of classroom and practice, and those things are all recent constructs. Those are good ways to learn, but there are a whole lot of other ones. All the advice we get comes straight out of the education world: You need to learn in blocks of time with isolated concentration in a quiet place, in a ritual where you block out all distractions and isolate the work from the rest of your life. That is what we have always been told."

We've been conditioned to believe that learning and education are the same thing. Carey's argument is that the most effective approach to retaining information is through the adoption of additional strategies supplementing ritualized education. He explains the importance of sleep, as it's the brain's method of consolidating a day's lessons. He defends the act of forgetting, as it allows for stronger retention after re-learning (like the building of a memory muscle). Daydreaming and distraction, in certain contexts, can actually boost your learning ability.

Carey is a big advocate for incorporating the science of learning into the middle school curriculum. Students should be made aware of how their brains best process certain information. Teaching them about learning while young will prepare them for continued learning in adulthood:

"We're used to studying on hope and prayer. We do what we're told, hope we're doing it right and hope we're doing enough of it. At least with the science you can develop a plan."

Read the entire interview at USA Today

Photo credit: Andresr / Shutterstock

In case you missed it earlier, check out our interview with Duolingo founder and Big Think Expert Luis von Ahn, on learning new languages for free:

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