A professor of engineering at Oakland University in Michigan, Prof Oakley’s work focuses on the complex relationship between neuroscience and social behaviour. She  has made a name for herself in promoting better ways of learning based on findings from neuroscience. Her 2014 book A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) was a New York Times bestseller.

“Much of what I do builds on the shoulders of giants. Researchers that have done great work that hasn’t really been communicated to the public.  For example the ideas of focused and diffuse learning – that pinball machine of ‘how do you think in a careful focused manner’ and then what do you do when you get stuck; you back away and let the diffuse mode tackle it in the background,” she says.

Problems arise as early as  primary school when students might find a subject like maths doesn’t come easily and they give up. “And it’s just because they don’t understand how their brain works. They don’t realise that if they don’t grab it quickly, they can still learn it very well and sometimes even more deeply.”

It all comes down to working memory capacity. Some people’s brains have ‘lots of little sticky octopus arms’ which hold ideas in place and they can learn very quickly. People with a smaller working memory capacity have to park some information in the hippocampus as they can’t hold it in their working memories.

“I just love Santiago Ramón y Cajal because he’s the perfect example of a great scientist with a lousy working memory. It was really difficult for him to learn. He was kicked out of schools and yet he became the Nobel prize-winning father of modern neuro-science. He was persistent and did what he needed to do to get that information from working memory into long term memory. And once he got that he could really work with it and was able to excel.”

Prof Oakley ‘re-engineered’ her own brain after enlisting in the U.S. Army straight out of high school, completing a B.A. in Slavic languages and literature and serving in Germany as a signal officer for four years, rising to Captain. “I followed my passion, I learned a language and I loved it – but what I found was it put me in a real career box.

“Because no one was looking for my skill set in slavic languages and literature, it was just not giving me the traction to call my own career shots. That’s why engineering began to appeal to me. And it was also the challenge of it, because engineering was so alien to everything I was. I didn’t like technical stuff to begin with. I liked fabric and weaving and that sort of stuff. And I hated math. But then I just started thinking – you’re always trying to do something that pushes your boundaries, so why not try this?

While the human brain is naturally geared to do things such as recognising faces and learning a first language- babies do this early and quickly- the brain didn’t evolve to learn things like reading and mathematics.

“So people do have brains that can lend themselves one way or another, but if you have to repurpose other circuits because your brain isn’t naturally geared – you can be more creative! You’re using circuits that are kind of different and you’re looking at things differently. It might take you longer to learn it, but once you have, you can really do things that the ‘get there right away’ learner can’t see because they don’t have the depth of knowledge that you have,” she says.

Evidence shows that taking little breaks, such as having students turn to each other, or work in little groups or even on their own, allows their hippocampus to start processing the information and park it out in long term memory.

“Even a few minutes of break can really be helpful for students. Our latest open online course is called ‘Learning how to learn for youth’.  It’s fun and takes everything down into five minute chunks. For example what happens when you learn something with your teacher but you don’t practice it for another two weeks? Well, your little synaptic janitor comes and sweeps away some of the connections! And that’s why you can’t understand when you are looking at it again.

“We know that if you use certain memory tools and tricks of learning, that technique changes your brain so that when you’re learning something you’re using a lot more connections and it helps that information to stick in your memory.

Prof Oakley has published in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More than two million people worldwide have taken her free online course Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.  She was in New Zealand earlier in the month (May) to deliver a lecture at Auckland University for The New Zealand Initiative.

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