Learn Better — A Book Review
“The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.“
~ Brian Herbert
Dappled light, chattering squirrels, and the softest of breezes wandering through the branches of the surrounding trees – this is summertime in my backyard. The fragrance of sweet alyssum spilling out of the flower pots in the corner of the deck mixed with the perfume of the geranium bushes mounting from the yard down below is so thick as to be almost distracting. As I pause to take it all in, I reflect on the idea that the book I am holding isn’t my typical summer reading choice (I usually go for a good mystery or historical fiction), but it’s the perfect selection for this summer.
Much like the scent of the flowers in my garden, change hangs thickly in the air for my family this year. My youngest is preparing to head off to boarding school for ninth grade, and my oldest has registered for a full course load at the local community college for his final year of high school before he departs for an as-yet-unknown university next year. Our eight years of homeschooling are winding down, and I am eager to add any last-minute tools I can to my boys’ “tool boxes” before sending them off into the world. So, this summer I have been reading the book Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, which I first heard about on a podcast a few weeks ago, in hopes that I will pick up some ideas my boys can use in the next stages of their education.
Within the first few pages I find myself wishing I had found this information years ago – it would have helped immensely in deciding what to look for and what to prioritize as I selected or developed learning materials and classes. It also would have helped me be more effective as a teacher (when the boys were younger) and learning facilitator (as the boys grew older). It’s not too late, though, and Learn Better is also full of information and ideas I can apply to my own learning, too, including changing some of the self-taught approaches that just aren’t efficient (time to ditch the highlighters!). It turns out, educational researchers have discovered that there are better and more efficient ways to learn than the methods many of us use, but most of us, including professional teachers, just don’t know about them. Well, until now that is…
Boser’s book is constructed around six chapters, each delving deeply into the research around one key aspect of learning. What could be a dry recitation of psychology, neuroscience, and research findings, though, definitely is not – he applies every idea to his own learning journey and shares stories of others’ struggles and experiences, too. Even for the non-scientist, this book is entirely accessible and packed with ideas any of us can use. Here are a couple of examples that I think are particularly applicable to homeschoolers:
Learning is hard. And something many of us know intuitively is that it’s difficult to invest energy into doing hard things, like learning something new, if we don’t know why we are learning it, if there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to learn it. On the other hand, if a subject has clear personal meaning, relevance, or usefulness, we are generally much more motivated to put in the effort because we see value in it. In addition, if we also have the expectation that we can be successful in achieving our goals, our motivation to learn becomes even stronger.
So, as parents, what can we do with this information? If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why isn’t my child interested in doing their school work?” or “What can I do to motivate my child to learn new things?”, think about how much autonomy they have over their work and work schedule, or how much freedom they have to customize their work based on their personal interests. Can you give them more opportunities to direct their own learning by designing their own projects or making other choices on their own? It can be scary to loosen the reins, especially for those of us who grew up in traditional, highly-structured educational settings, but as Boser says, “We often need space to find value, and a wealth of research supports the idea of giving students control over how they learn a subject.”
Understanding how to break learning down into discrete steps and ensuring that each individual student is learning exactly what they need to learn at each point along the way (regardless of age or grade in school) is a key aspect of learning. For younger learners this usually means learning basic facts that will form a foundation of knowledge that they can build on as they grow and progress, like developing reading skills and memorizing math facts. Once they have established this foundational knowledge and committed it to long term memory, they will be ready to connect new, more sophisticated learning and skills to this existing knowledge. In other words, targeting the appropriate learning at the appropriate time is key so new knowledge that is “at a level slightly beyond their skills” is connected to existing knowledge.
As parents, it’s helpful to envision memory and expertise not as a linear model, but as a “sprawling network, a system of hubs and links” that expand and strengthen with use. So how can we help our kids build expertise? Here are a few tips:
- Ask them to write down or talk about what they already know about a subject before they begin learning something new (this primes their memory and highlights knowledge gaps).
- Help them learn how to do their own regular, low-stakes assessments like self-quizzing or explaining new ideas out loud to themselves or someone else.
- Coach them to ask themselves “why” and “how” questions like, “Why is this information important?” and “How does this connect to what I learned earlier?”
While the ideas shared in Learn Better are highly relevant and useful for any type of student, this book is not just for those who may struggle with learning. Even for those who are academically strong, who already have a capacity for learning, developing the skills necessary to optimize their ability to learn is important. And yet, this is rarely something teachers and parents focus on. Add to that the notion that willingness to learn is also a key (but often unacknowledged) component of learning, and we see that our self-developed approaches to learning are frequently missing critical elements. Teaching our children to “learn how to learn” is a gift that those of us who are actively involved in our children’s education can give them. And if we start early enough, maybe they won’t have to undo a lifetime of bad highlighting habits down the road!
Lori Dunlap worked for almost twenty years in the corporate world, first as a management consultant to Fortune 500 companies, and then at a large research university as a program director, admissions committee member, and adjunct faculty. She has homeschooled her two boys since 2011, and recently published her first book, “From Home Education to Higher Education”, published by GHF Press in 2017. You can connect with Lori and find more information about college admissions for homeschoolers at: www.uncommonapplicant.com
If you like this post, and would like to see what other homeschooling parents are reading this summer, click on the image below: