Brilliant: The Science of Smart

The Real Learning Curve

The way we lock in knowledge and skills is often counterintuitive. A debut column on the lowdown of learning

  • Share
  • Read Later

Learning is simple, right? It’s the process of moving information from out there — from a textbook, a company report, a musical score — to in here, inside our heads, and making that knowledge our own. Parents, teachers, and other experts are full of sensible-sounding advice about how to learn well: select a particular place to study and use it consistently; concentrate on one subject at a time; focus intensively on the material just before a test or an important meeting.

But it turns out that learning is not so simple and obvious — all of the above instructions, for example, are flat-out wrong. Our own experience with learning — or our kids’ or our employees’ — shows us that learning can be a tricky thing: we read and we memorize and we practice, and still the information doesn’t always stick. Under the pressure of an exam or an audience, our hard-won knowledge does a disappearing act. Even social scientists have been confounded by learning. For more than a century, psychologists have constructed elaborate theories of how people learn that are intricate, elegant—and mostly useless.

(MORE: Amnesia and a Camera: Photos as Memories)

And then, about ten years ago, researchers started to do something radically different. Using the tools of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, they began paying attention to how the brain actually learns. This new field has witnessed explosive growth over the past decade, generating academic programs, professional journals, research conferences and reports of scientific findings by the thousands. What they have discovered was a surprise: the brain has its own set of rules by which it learns best — and they look nothing like what we imagined. From these rules, some remarkable conclusions follow:

• How we learn shapes what we know and what we can do. Our knowledge and our abilities are largely determined not by our IQ or some other fixed measure of intelligence, but by the effectiveness of our learning process: call it our learning quotient.

• Everyone can learn more effectively. Successful learning doesn’t require fancy schools, elaborate training sessions, or expensive technology. It just takes an understanding of how the brain really works.

• We need a learning revolution: in the schools, at home, and in the workplace. Although the science of learning has made enormous advances over the past decade, its discoveries have remained restricted to academic journals and conferences. It’s time to liberate this knowledge for the good of learners everywhere.

Each week in TIME Ideas, I’ll be examining the latest research and the most penetrating insights into how learning works. I hope you’ll join me — together, we have a lot to learn.