Dr. Barbara Oakley: Understanding Learning And How It Works
Today we are joined by Dr. Barbara Oakley. If that name sounds familiar, it should, because not only is she a professor of engineering at Oakland University, but she also teaches the world's largest and most popular online course, literally. It is called Learning How To Learn and has over 2 million students. You have probably also seen Barb's, as she told me to call her, Ted talk, which is a viral hit and definitely worth checking out.
So, it is pretty obvious why I wanted to have Professor Oakley or Barb on the show. There is so much overlap between the things that we do, and we completely hit it off. We agreed on so many different things in this talk, but we also learned from one another. At a certain point she shares with me some ways in which the techniques that I've been teaching for years can be used, that I didn't know of and at another point I shared with her some of the visual mnemonics and gave her some advice as to how she can overcome a memory and learning challenge that she's been going through.
We had an incredible groove recording this episode. We're definitely going to have Barb back on the show and I know you guys are just gonna love this episode and learn so much.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Who is Barbara Oakley? How did she become the teacher of the largest course on the web on how to learn? [4:35]
- Using teaching to improve learning [8:50]
- How do we learn and how do we learn better? [10:30]
- Impediments standing in your way to learn [11:10]
- The biggest problem for every learner: Procrastination, and a solution [12:30]
- Online Courses and how they deal with procrastination [20:10]
- Online Learning vs Traditional Learning: Thoughts by Barbara Oakley [24:00]
- The transformation towards online learning [28:00]
- More tips on how we can optimize our learning [34:25]
- What chunking is and how it can be applied in learning any subject [36:40]
- Progressive overload: working at the level where things are interesting [41:00]
- Deliberate learning versus lazy learning [42:00]
- Speed Reading: When Barbara Oakley uses it and when she doesn't [44:30]
- Differences in our styles of teaching how to learn [52:00]
- A specific learning challenge of Barbara Oakley's [53:00]
- How to memorize names and what prevents us from doing so [55:00]
- How Barbara Oakley unwinds [58:30]
- Using real life examples to learn faster and better [59:20]
Resources Mentioned in This Episode:
- Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects by Barbara Oakley
- Khan Academy
- Our previous episode with Zach Evans
- Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
- Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, upcoming book by Barbara Oakley
- The books by Barbara Oakley (Amazon)
- Barb Oakley's website
Favorite Quotes from Barbara Oakley:
Introduction: Welcome to the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. Where we interview extraordinary people to bring you the skills and strategies to overcome the impossible and now here's your host, Jonathan Levi.
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Greetings, SuperFriends, and welcome to another very special episode. I feel like every week I'm telling you guys that it's a very special episode and honestly, it's true. Every time of the Becoming SuperHuman Podcast, my name is Jonathan Levi, and today we are joined by Dr. Barbara Oakley. If that name sounds familiar, it should, because she's not only a professor of engineering at Oakland University, but she also teaches the world's largest and most popular online course, literally it's called learning how to learn and has over 2 million students.
You've probably also seen Barb as she told me to call her Barb's Ted talk, which is a viral hit and definitely worth checking out. So, pretty obvious why I wanted to have professor Oakley on the show or Barb on the show. So much overlap between the things that we do and we completely hit it off. We agreed on so many different things in this talk.
And we also learned from one another, at a certain point, she shares with me some ways that in which the techniques that I've been teaching for years can be used that I didn't know they could be used. And at another point, I shared with her, some of the visual mnemonics and gave her some advice to how she can overcome a memory and learning challenge that she's been going through.
So just an incredible report that we had. We're definitely going to have barb back on the show. And I know you guys are just going to love this episode and learn so much. I do want to let you guys know that there is an uncut ad-free video version of this interview that came out much before the audio version.
And if in the future you would like to receive these exclusive video interviews early and without ads as part of the SuperLearner Masterclass, well all you need to do to check it out and join a free trial is visit J L e.vi/learn where you can start intake the first week and a half, two weeks of the course completely free, no credit card required. Start accelerating your learning, improving your memory, and just becoming more superhuman today. So again, JLe.vi/learn, and you guys will also get a very special discount for listeners of this podcast only. And now, without any further ado, allow me to introduce you guys to my new SuperFriend. Dr. Barbara Oakley,
Barb. Welcome. I am so excited to finally meet you after years of hearing about your work. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, Oh my goodness. Well, it is such a pleasure to meet you. I watched your Ted talk, it was so fantastic. Thank you so much. It's going to be fun, talking about learning.
Jonathan Levi: Yeah. I'm really, really excited.
So I also watched your Ted talk. I'm obsessed with it. I love it. And my students sent it to me, which I think is even better that they're researching the topic of accelerated learning. And they're like, you have to see this Ted talk, you know, before the millions of views and stuff and told me about your course so. But for those who haven't already heard about you and seen what you do, tell us a little bit about who you are and, and how one becomes a teacher of the largest course on the web on how to learn.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Well, I think it's sort of like the accidental teacher. I think part of it is, Oh, where do I even begin? A lot of people or instructors professors who talk about learning have, they've kind of gone through the regular, old expected route of this is how you learn about learning, right? So they go up through the treadmill, you get your bachelor's degree and then your master's degree, and then your doctorate in education. And you don't really realize how sometimes that constrains you, you kind of get this, this academic pinpoint vision.
That's very narrow about what learning really is. And sometimes I think that people like you who are in the wild, so to speak very intelligent learners who are smart enough to pick up on what's going on in the research literature but also looking at what's going on in the real world can be really helpful.
In fact, even more, helpful than the academics who are really used to small areas that focus on intently. So for me, my own background is all over the place. I mean, I worked out on Soviet trawlers up in the Bering sea. I enlisted in the army right out of high school. So I was a Russian linguist. And ah, I worked down in Antarctica at the South pole station. That's where I met my husband and did a lot of things outside of academia before I decided to try in my, let's see, I was in my very late 30's. I got my Ph.D. in engineering, which is kind of funny because I was always a linguist before and never thought I could do math or science. So what this really means is that I'm a professor of engineering. So I know one of the topics that people most struggle with, which is worse, several of the topics which are Math and Science.
Jonathan Levi: I would say I have several and the Russian language, which is extraordinarily difficult.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Well, it's not as tough as like Chinese or something, but it still, it was a learning experience for me.
But I guess, what I'm circling back around to is to say that I have a broad range of experiences, and so what that does is that helps me to be more aware of what learning can really entail out in the real world, but I do have a good academic background so that helps me to look into and pierce the academic literature and bring some of the best insights out so that people can help learn more about how their brain works so they can learn more easily and more effectively.
Jonathan Levi: I really liked that. And I also really like, you know, we teach in our course about brute force learning and this idea of diversified learning from different aspects. And I really like what you said, and as you were saying it, I was thinking about the people that I've learned from so much, you know, Tim Ferris, I learned so much about business guidance and have an MBA. Dave Asprey, I learned so much about health, guy is not a doctor, you know, and ironically is an MBA. And so many of these people that we learned so much from who exactly, as you said, synthesize real-world experience and presented like, Hey, I struggled, I couldn't learn this in academia. Let me present it to you in a way. I love this.
Dr. Barbara Oak: I think what people don't realize is that if you're looking at something difficult from an outsider's perspective, the best way you can understand it is to simplify it to its essence. And if you're able to do that, that means that you've got some essence that you can more easily communicate to other people and I think that's what you do as well.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. And we just, you know, the process of teaching is the process of re-evaluating learning. And especially if you're teaching-learning, I'm sure you've experienced this where you realize along the way, you're like, Hey, I understand this topic better now than before I taught it.
And so I just added actually a whole YouTube video and stuff like that about Fineman technique, which is exactly that over the years of trying to explain stuff, you've crystallized it down so much. And I've found myself drawing things out for people and explaining it in, in certain different ways. So that's really interesting as well.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, yes. Well, for example, Charles Darwin, when Darwin was trying to figure out evolutionary theory, it wasn't easy. I mean, it seems easy to us now, but it was not an easy thing to figure out, especially when really nobody or barely anybody had really wrestled with these ideas. Although I have to say Leonardo DaVinci was bopping around with some of those as same related thoughts, several hundred years before.
But anyway, what he would often do is just explain pretend that he had a neighbor and he was explaining to the neighbors, some of his ideas, and that helped him to simplify and crystallize what he was doing. And I just loved the Fineman techniques. So I think it's one of the best approaches around.
Jonathan Levi: So that's actually a really good segue I've gotten into the Bitcoin world.
So now when I say segue, it comes out SegWit, which is segregated witness technology. But anyway, that's a really good segue into me asking. So you assembled this course that now millions of people have seen, and I recommend everybody see this course, check this course out, called learning how to learn based on real-world experience.
So I'm gonna ask, do a deliberately annoying and broad question, which is how do we learn and how do we learn better?
Dr. Barbara Oak: How do we learn?
Jonathan Levi: Or how do we learn how to learn?
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, well, we learn anything by creating a pattern in our brain and a pattern that we can call up relatively easily. So that's, I mean, creating patterns in your brain is what learning is all about.
So that's what you want to aim at is creating these patterns in your brain. But how do you go about doing that? There's a couple of impediments that can stand in your way to learning whatever you want to learn. The first one is thinking, or I can't do it. I don't have the math gene or the language gene or whatever, you know, gene or predisposition.
And unfortunately, society, at least Western society is very strongly pro this idea that everybody has natural next that's what you should be aiming at is whatever you're already naturally good at. Well, the thing is what you're already naturally good at is generally the kinds of things that everybody's naturally good at, right? So it's kinda hard to like get a job with these kinds of talents and so forth.
Jonathan Levi: Is it competitive to be good at the same thing?
Dr. Barbara Oak: Yeah. So you often want to try to gain expertise in things that other people find are more difficult. So if you can kind of just get in your mind that really you can learn anything.
It just may take you a lot longer and that's perfectly okay to do that. In fact, if you're a slower learner, that means you may have to use other neural circuits than people typically use. And that means that you're going to be thinking differently about what you're learning and you can be more creative.
So that's one thing. Now, the other thing that's often an impediment to learning is like the key impediment. By that I mean, when I hear from learners all around the world and I do the biggest problem, they all share, no matter whether you're in Singapore or Julie or, or Boston, It's procrastination because, Hey, you want to learn this stuff, but Hey, you want to learn it tomorrow?
And so the best thing I've found in, I'm sure you've talked about this is the Pomodoro technique and that was invented by Francesco City, and I always like to give him credit because I think it's just a marvelous idea. And it's so simple that you tend to go, Oh, well, yeah, sure.
Jonathan Levi: That makes sense. Yeah.
Dr. Barbara Oak: It's actually, it's a brilliant idea and people love it in them. MOOCs stands for massive open online course, and all you have to do for this technique is just put away all distractions. So no little ringy thing is on your cell phone. And then, then just set a timer for twenty-five minutes, focus for 25 minutes, and then the most important thing of all you can let it go.
If you kind of get in the flow, you can go longer than 25 minutes, but whenever you're done, you give yourself a reward. And by that, I mean, listen to a song you like to sing. Get up, move around, go on the web, and surf around. Do just any kind of rewarding break. And what this does is if you always program in a little reward at the end of your intense focus period, it's almost like Pavlov's dogs. Pavlov's dogs they'd ring a bell and then they'd wait because they knew they were going to get some food, but they didn't know, you know, it's coming and they would salivate. They get all excited and they'd be so happy. And that's what you're doing, is you're programming your brain to expect the reward. And that gets you to enjoy that period of focus more in templates.
So anyway, those are just my thoughts, on learning.
Jonathan Levi: I want to respond to both things actually. The first one I love because it's something that I also discovered, again, as a process of learning these techniques, I realized that at a certain point, so I call it the memory pig Pygmalion or the intellectual Pygmalion or Golem effect because I noticed, and this was years later that I learned in business school about the Pygmalion effect and the Golem effect and those are all very interesting, but what I realized is a lot of the time I was, you know, as they say, that the Shoemaker goes barefoot. A lot of the time when I needed to remember something, I wasn't using mnemonic techniques. And I realized that over time, I just remembered stuff. And I, you know, I know the science I've looked at the research I know that my brain has not changed because I know how to use a memory palace. And what I realized was to relate to the first thing that you said was by stopping this I'm bad at math. And I have a lousy memory by telling myself, Oh, I have a phenomenal memory. It actually made my memory better, whether or not I use the techniques.
And so this idea of stop telling yourself that you're not an effective learner in mathematics because your brain will do everything in its power to give you this confirmation bias and prove you right. And that was just, it was like this huge moment where I'm like, wait a minute. Why do I remember this string of numbers? I, I forgot to use ironically, an actual memory technique. And I still remember it. I thought that was very interesting. And the Pomodoro technique, interestingly enough, I teach in my productivity course, but not in my learning course, which is funny.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, that is kind of funny because I find that procrastination and learning is just a huge deal.
And so I think the more that you can kind of share with learners, a good technique for getting past procrastination. Procrastination, surprisingly enough, we often don't think about how it happens. I mean, we get. All these psychobabble ideas, I'm sure that they're grounded in some solid, well, I'm not so sure that they're always grounded, but there'll be things like you actually don't want to be successful and that's why you're procrastinating.
And it just kind of all sorts of things that really don't directly give you any tools, but it turns out that when you procrastinate, when you even think about something you don't like to do, it activates the pain centers of the brain so the insular cortex like lights up and it makes you feel as uncomfortable as if you just had a bellyache.
So what do you do? You instantly change your attention to something else and that makes you feel happier instantly, but it also, you've just procrastinated. So I love the Pomodoro technique because it goes right at the heart of why do we procrastinate? Oh, it's to avoid something that is painful for us.
And if instead we just say, we're not even going to think about this painful thing and you're like, wait a minute, you're going to work on calculus. So, of course, you're going to think about it. No, no, no. You're actually thinking about, I have to do a task for 25 minutes. And then I begin doing it. I'm not thinking about that amorphous thing of calculus you're slipping, pasture, brains, pain centers, and getting right to work and it works really, really well.
Jonathan Levi: I love doing these interviews because every time I do want, I actually, I mean, I do these interviews for myself, like sorry to the audience, but I do these interviews because there's so much, and I learned so much and it, it also happens that other people enjoy them as well, but I always learn something.
And I realized as you were talking that oftentimes, I'm doing a learning session in one of my hobbies, which I forgot to mention also includes learning Russian and learning piano. And I like to take on very hard things as you can tell. And I realized that I always get to that point, you know, the 45 minutes and it's again, it's always, the Shoemaker goes barefoot or the Baker's children go hungry, as they say, where I get to these 45-minute points and I'm like, okay, I've hit my limit. And I teach students, you know, don't push yourself past the limit, but at the end of the day, right? if I were to take a five-minute break, watch some YouTube videos, and then go back. Then now I've done two study sessions and for some reason, I don't do it so that's one of my big takeaways so far from the interview.
Dr. Barbara Oak: This is going to sound really stupid, but I will get up, I'm working on something and I just I'm like, Oh, that's it that's as much as I could do on this thing today. And I'll just get up and go to the bathroom.
So I get up, I go to the bathroom and then by golly, have half the time I come back and I go look, you know, just a little bit more and then before I know it. I'm back into it. And just that one little bathroom break has given my mind enough. So I think you're exactly right, just a little bit more by way of breaks can sometimes be very helpful.
Jonathan Levi: Totally and actually, it's funny right now, so we're always trying to figure out how to make students more successful in our courses obviously. And what we discovered is first off, I think the reason that people enroll in an online course like yours, or like ours, is exactly that it's the pacing out were someone, you know, you can't procrastinate because I've told you what to do on day one and day two and day three and I noticed also your courses broken into weeks. And I think that's the value of an organized course. And that's why people pay when they can learn on YouTube. Not that one is better than the other. But the second thing we're now doing is I always took the approach because of, you know, Malcolm Knowles and his whole adults need to make decisions in their self-directed learning.
They need to take responsibility for the learning process. I interpreted that to mean, let's just give them the entire course. And if they want to do it in four weeks, let them, and if they want to do it in 10 weeks, which is what we recommend, let them, and if they want to do it in 10 months, let them, and then I started realizing that what that does is it, it opens the door for procrastination. Whereas if you use drip content, And I was always against it. I'm like, if someone's passionate about learning my materials, let them, I'm not going to stop them and say, wait until next week. But what I realized is the opposite and we actually learned it from roommate's safety. A marketing group is by putting the whole smorgasbord, the whole buffet in front of someone.
They eat a little bit and then they get overwhelmed and then they go and they procrastinate every day to come back. Whereas if you tell them, you have to wait until next week, it becomes this reward. And then also there's only in that week, 45 minutes of video content for them to consume. You essentially force, I hate to use the word force, but you design these Pomodoro for them. And that's actually something we're looking into shifting our entire student base into is once a week. Here's your portion and you know, not overwhelming people so that they can then procrastinate.
Dr. Barbara Oak: I think that's a great approach just another thought on this is Coursera is that's where my course with turns Semanski the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute. He's a super incredible neuroscientist. So our courses through Coursera and what Coursera has done is they make everything so that you can, for example, our course is one month. So you can take it in one month. You can re-enroll if you fall out, so you can restart from where you were, if you re-enroll in a later course, but you can also go faster.
Then that one month. So I think it's, it's sort of a sort of hard deadline, but you can go faster if you want. And that I think tickles a fancy of people who might be really excited and then lose some of that enthusiasm. If they have to delay for a week, but it also has this hard deadline. So if you go past that, then you've got to re-enroll in the subsequent course and just keep going at the same time.
Jonathan Levi: It's a little bit of pressure where it's like, Ugh, you know, I better not miss it or I'm going to have to wait and I like that.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Yeah. Re-enroll and so forth. So I think that has been, it still isn't quite the same as when we first had the course on Coursera, which was once every other month we taught the course and instead of it's coming up every week and when it was every other month, man, we have like a couple hundred thousand and enrolling at a time.
And then people would just really know we probably have around. 7000-8000 a week who enroll, which is really good, but it's just a different dynamic now with how the enrollments were due to this new platform.
Jonathan Levi: It's incredible. And you know, I'm dying to ask you as, you know, as someone who's spent and spends time in traditional academia and has also become one of the most successful online instructors.
What are your feelings on? You know, do you feel like the online learning experience for learners is as beneficial, more beneficial, less beneficial and do you think that that's the direction that we're moving to, or do you still think it's a better learning experience for students to be in the classroom?
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, I think it depends a lot on the student and a lot on the online course, academia as a whole, just to be honest with you, is kicking and screaming and doing pretty much everything they can to, to vilify and mitigate people's desire to want to learn online and it's a defensive measure. And it's funny because I can get in front of academic audiences and you could almost feel the chill in the year when you begin speaking about how online learning can be as good or better than face-to-face learning.
Jonathan Levi: Right.
Dr. Barbara Oak: I think the best of all worlds is you have a superstar teacher and you are directly real life in front of them. And that's pretty much a very rare occurrence.
Jonathan Levi: Right.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Because the reality is that half of all teachers are below average and your chances of ever getting a superstar teacher face-to-face are really quite low, but you can get a superstar teacher online and with some of the great online ways of teaching.
You can totally be learning just as well in, in some ways, even better than you can in the face-to-face classroom. So I think the future of online learning is extremely bright. It's just that you have to retrain yourself because typical professors and academics are not going to help you to become a self-learner.
I mean, they will say that they want to help you do that. But the reality is that a lot of what you to want them. And so they're not going to give you tools like Pomodoro technique, like other I'd like how you watch videos and really get a lot out of them. And they're certainly not going to sit there and say, wow, you can learn just as much through online as you can face to face.
Jonathan Levi: Sure.
Dr. Barbara Oak: So anyway, I think that we're in a, we're moving into a territory that has so much potential and so much future, and really helps a lot of people. And it's kinda neat because there's just so much there that academia is still kind of missing out on and that we can provide help
Jonathan Levi: Exactly.
Dr. Barbara Oak: that they're not getting through traditional academic sources necessarily.
Jonathan Levi: Right. Two comments on that, one, I always like to think that if traditional academia were. You know, meeting the market demand fully, then I wouldn't have a job, you know, but there is this thirst for learning things that schools are not teaching schools, universities, I tend to believe schools should be teaching and I think that's interesting. And my second point was I have to trace my way back to it, just this idea that I always thought it was interesting, as you said, you know, it's pretty rare to find a teacher who's operating in a very high level and I always thought that it's super unfair to ask someone who's an academic and probably doing research, and clearly has this intellectual thirst to spend any portion of their time teaching the exact same thing over and over and over and over again, in order to finance the research that they're actually interested in. And I always thought to myself, like, why don't you, you know, there's a couple of years of warming up and teaching the content I've redone my course, because of that, you know, as you get better and you understand student challenges, but why don't you just capture them at the peak moment? You know, that at the top of the bell curve, when they understand the content optimally and are still passionate about teaching it, record it, and then give me that, because sometimes you get these professors, I had them in business school who've been teaching the same topic for 30 years and they're just, they're phoning it in because they're like, yeah, this I, you know, I wrote a whole book on it. You guys should just read the book, but, uh, I kinda need to be here because if I want to continue my research, the university requires a certain percentage of our, you know, and I always thought that was crazy like just put it on video and everyone. Gets a better experience, you know, and Berkeley started doing that, Stanford started doing that, UC San Diego started doing that. So I think that's interesting.
Dr. Barbara Oak: It is, but there is still a lot of pushback. And so that's why you, you still don't see nearly what I believe you will be seeing in two decades from now. So, and at that time, of course, they'll be saying, we were always learned.
Jonathan Levi: Of course, I think they just don't understand that when you make the delivery method so much more efficient, you know, you remove the bottleneck, which is the physical classroom is a huge bottleneck for the billions of people all over the world who don't have access to elite universities. The professor's attention is the bottleneck, and you can automate a lot of that with, you know, online tools that actually their business model stands and stands to grow that there is so much profit to be made and I know that sounds terrible when we're talking about learning, but it's such a lucrative business to educate people online and that Harvard could have a many, many billion-dollar business selling their content effectively and getting out of this limitation because many people will want to attend Harvard.
But there are a couple of billion people who cannot afford to and still would love to benefit from that information. But they've taken the other route, which is, let's just put old content online for free, you know, and I think that's going to change. I think what's going to change is that their business model is going to start to include more premium online content where you can experience the intellectual wisdom of a Harvard without having to pay the Harvard tuition.
Dr. Barbara Oak: That's true. One thing you have to watch out for though, and this is a surprise to me, but visiting some of these elite institutions, there used to be a saying about ITT, the big telephone company that had the monopoly on telephones in this country.
And the same was that their logo was we don't care, we don't have to. I think for these elite institutions, you might as well say the logo is something along those minds. You don't see the innovation in online learning that you do see from some of the seemingly lesser institutions, they can actually do a better job, and also on YouTube and on some of the other online provider platforms with seeming amateurs, you can see more innovation, more creativity, and more useful material.
Then you can from some of the most elite institutions because for them, you'll see things like we've got a one-minute entry montage of, you know, the beautiful buildings at our elite institution. And then we'll kind of, it's beautifully produced, but there's, the content is not, I mean, it's, it's made for students who are the best students in the world who will learn anyway.
And so it's pretty boring. And so there's just so much better content out there. And people are often attracted to elite institutions, you know, brand X. I got to go there and they don't realize there's much better content and more useful content through some of the other platforms.
Jonathan Levi: I agree fully. And I realized that online learning was going to be a big thing when I left. So I went to NCI, which many people in the audience might not know, but it's ranked by Forbes as the best business school in the world, which is interesting. Many people don't realize, um, Not a wow impressive thing of what I'm about to tell the second part of this story, which is I realized that this online learning thing is huge when I left a lecture, I won't say which lecture completely not understanding. Went to the library, went to Khan academy.com 20 minutes later went, ah, I get it. And that was fun academy's old stuff there. You know, the first lectures that, uh, Salomon Khan did. That was a big aha moment for me.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Yeah. You don't realize, so I won't mention the name of this institution, but they're a top business school and the way they get their videos is they just, they schedule in a couple of hours with some person, some professor and it's elite professor, blah, and they just, they scuttle over to his office or her office and then film for a few hours and then they throw it all online. And that is the course from this elite and this person is just, they're a professor at the elite institution. And so they do know, but they've just kind of tossed out
Jonathan Levi: Right.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Whatever it is that they're teaching. There's no real care. It's whatever they can get out of this professor as fast as they can.
And it's nothing like a well-made course. And you're thinking this is elite institution X, I've got to have some great stuff, but if you knew what was going on behind the scenes, it's really thrown together stuff by a person who really couldn't be bothered to put any time into and care into it.
Jonathan Levi: I couldn't agree more in it. And I actually just recorded a course because so many people ask me, you know, how do I create courses? The biggest takeaway there is we spent 70% of our time structuring the flow and content of the course before anyone hits record, we've looked over the outline 10 times to make sure that every lecture builds on the lecture accelerates the learning experience to make people get sucked in deeper and deeper to the immersive learning experience. And the recording is easy. I can usually record a course in one day, you know, but, uh, they have writing, I've spent months writing a course and as you well know.
Dr. Barbara Oak: We sound very similar.
Jonathan Levi: Yeah. So I want to ask you any other tips that I can squeeze out of you from your experience on how we can optimize our learning. We discussed Pomodoro technique obviously, and we discussed kind of self-talk.
Dr. Barbara Oak: I think understanding enough that you understand whenever you are learning something, you're creating that pattern in your brain. And it's basically, you've got a neuron. It talks to the next neuron. It talks to the next one.
You create this structure, this pattern. And all learning is growing these patterns so that you can grab the pattern whenever you need it. So when you're first trying to understand something, your working memory is very limited. They often say it has four slots, so to speak so that is implying you can hold four ideas are four thoughts, like four numbers or something. So when you're first trying to understand a concept, all of those slots, you are almost like, think of them. It's like your attentional system is like this octopus with forearms and those forearms can grab stuff and kind of rearrange them and try and figure it out and put it together.
And you can see that when you're trying to understand something difficult, your working memory is going crazy. Those forearms in the octopus, or they're working ways the prefrontal cortex is really, it. There's a lot of metabolic processes going on there. But once you figured it out and you've practiced a little bit with it, it gets put into long-term memory, that pattern, and that means that instead of your working memory, going crazy up here, you can just kind of take an arm of your octopus, reach down into working memory and grab that pattern.
It's like a computer support team. Ah, you've created the computer support team. Go grab it, you know, have it go to work right. So your working memory isn't going crazy. So the more of these kinds of patterns, neuroscientists call them chunks, the more of these patterns that you create, the better you are as an expert.
How do you create these patterns? Practice makes perfect. So if you're learning the piano, you are practicing, uh, with a small chunk, a little pattern, right? Just a chord, right? And then you build these, you can make a longer chunk. So you were learning to play several chords together is same when you're learning a language, you're learning a word.
Then how to string several words together, then how to conjugate the verbs, and so forth. And it's the same in Math and Science. We often think because it's abstract, it's harder to see that it's the same underlying process as learning a language or learning to play an instrument, or learning in sports. But it is exactly the same.
You're learning to create a chunk, a pattern related to differentiation, for example. So the more time you spend creating these little chunks, little neural patterns that can get bigger, the better your library of expertise becomes. And so focusing on practice daily practice of whatever you're trying to learn is a great thing to be doing.
Jonathan Levi: Interesting because we obviously we teach chunking and of course, but we focus on it from the perspective of, okay, I'm creating a visual mnemonic.
Instead of having four visual mnemonics for details, chunk of them into one visual mnemonic. So you have, and then I can have four visual mnemonics, 16 items, but I never thought about chunking in terms of, okay, let's see chord is just learning a chunk. And now I don't have to worry about the individual notes in C and yet this idea of the subroutines was really brilliant for me.
Just this idea that like, things become second nature and you work your way up the hierarchy of a topic by assembling larger and larger building blocks together. I love that.
Dr. Barbara Oak: That's right.
Jonathan Levi: And also with languages, you know, you start with the alphabet and at first you need to read every letter in every word, and then you start piecing together entire words, and then you piece together sentences and I love that metaphor.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Another metaphor that I think really helps you see the underlying commonality of all of these ideas is that of backing up a car. If you think about it, when you first start to back up a car, you're learning how to do it. It's awful. I mean, it's kind of like learning how to ride a bicycle.
There's something in your mind that says, wait a minute, do I look in the front mirror? Do I look inside me or do I turn around and look behind me? Wait, I've got this crunch stuff going on and you end up backing up all over the place because you just don't know what you're doing. And your working memory is overloaded.
So you practice and gradually you put together a pattern of, Oh, back up a car, you've got this pattern, you draw the sub-routine and you can back right up and you can even be talking to other people, listening to radio and so forth. It's easy because you practiced it and that's one of the subroutines you need to be an expert driver.
Jonathan Levi: Right.
Dr. Barbara Oak: And so you don't think about it, but backing up a car is a perfect example of a chunk it's confusing to start with, but then once you get it, it's second nature. And all of learning is like that. When you first start learning that chord on the guitar, It's like, wait, where do I go? Then it's easy. Or you start to learn how to say a sentence in Spanish at first it's your tongue is all over the place you don't end, then it starts to come together. Yeah. So it's like that for us.
Jonathan Levi: What I love is, you know, I've been doing this for years as have you. Okay. And you still, you discovered depths.
It's like, you can never get, you know, everything. I feel like you can never know every aspect of it, right? And even the Ph.D. in neuroscience is like, Oh, Pomodoro technique, what's that? You know, like, you know, that's what we call brute force learning is bring in neuroscience, bring in exercise. We draw from training methodologies used by Russian weightlifters in the 1980s to explain how you overcome certain learning challenges in a progressive way and slightly overload.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Hopefully it doesn't have steroids. Also as pork.
Jonathan Levi: No, definitely not. Definitely not, but the idea of progressive overload, where if you try to go beyond your limit, you'll get frustrated. If you go under your limit, you're not challenging the body-brain, whatever it is to expand, you just want to operate right at that level, and then once you get comfortable with the level you want to accelerate, which is also if you think about it chunking it's okay. Once that can easily form a C chord. Now it's time to put the C court in, uh, arpeggio because it's too easy to just practice a C chord over and over.
Dr. Barbara Oak: You're right. I call that, I mean, it's kind of funny in psychology. It's always this positive stuff, right? And so the researcher, Robert Buerk calls it desirable difficulties. You want to be just at the level of everything's desirable and you want to concentrate. There's this idea, which I know, you know, uh, called deliberate practice, which is you want to focus on the hard things, but I always like to be a little bit contrary in it.
I'm like, Oh, come on, you guys, deliberate practice. Who's going to remember that term. It's just so you know, kind of really fuzzy and amorphous I'm like no, you don't want to focus on deliberate practice. You want to avoid lazy practice, lazy practices, like when it's super easy and you just do it because it's so easy. Like when I was a kid, I was learning to play the piano. So I figured out my parents didn't pay attention to me. All they knew was she's playing the piano or she isn't playing the piano. So it finally occurred to me if I just learn how to play a song and learn it really well, and I would do that. And then I would take a comic book, put it in front of me and I could play the song over and over again while I was reading the comic book. So it's like five minutes of real practice and twenty-five minutes of lazy practice. Hey, I'm done with my learning for the day and of course, uh, you know, I didn't make a lot of money progress on the piano
Jonathan Levi: Was going to say, how's your playing? Was it good?
Dr. Barbara Oak: Not so good. But avoiding lazy learning, I think is a really good thing to do.
Jonathan Levi: Right and it's interesting that you say that with that example. Cause we just interviewed Zach Evans who teaches an accelerated learning course in piano and he realized accidentally, he accidentally left his camera running after recording a YouTube video and recorded one of his practice sessions.
And he realized that he was doing the same thing, not deliberately that out of a one-hour session. It was like, well, let me warm up my fingers and play it, you know? Cause we all like being good as fun. So we all like, Oh, I'll spend five minutes and I'll play all the songs that I know how to play just to make sure I don't forget them. And then, then I'll practice the new stuff and it was. 45 minutes and five minutes, five minutes of practicing the hard stuff. The second he said that I was like, Oh my God, I do that every time I sit down to the piano, I play all this stuff that makes me feel good. That I'm good.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Yep. It's so easy to do because I know I do it when I'm trying to study Spanish.
Oh, let's go over the older stuff. And sometimes the most effective learning is the most painful learning. So we sort of find these ways to sneak around doing it. And I don't care how good you are. Your tendency is to do that and if you're aware of it, it's a big step forward.
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely. It's the Peter C. Brown, you know, uh, making it stick, learning that comes easily. Doesn't stick. And I believe that absolutely. Barbara, I wanted to give you an opportunity. You asked me before the interview, you're like, do you want to talk about speed reading on the air or off the air? Cause I got some, it's a controversial topic.
And I said, let's talk about it on the air because I probably agree with you on most of it. So ask away, what are your thoughts on speed reading or concerns or questions?
Dr. Barbara Oak: I guess that, and this is. I have not done a whole bunch of research on speed reading. So it's not like I'm talking about this as an academic.
I've spent 14 years studying speed reading. It's just looking at what we are as learners. As learners, we have to create these neural patterns and it's hard to make neural patterns. And so it depends a lot on the reading material, the type of reading material I think that you have as to whether you can speed read, and if it's a Harlequin romance, you can probably get all the key points pretty quickly, uh, you know, make it, and then let's say it's a non-fiction book and it's got some ideas. There are a few key ideas. Like for me, it's not a fun experience to speed read. I mean, if I have to speed, read a book or some kind of paper, I'll skim it over, look at the kind of the beginning, a sentence of a paragraph, try and catch the key ideas going through, but it's not the same kind of reading experience as I'm just really sitting like right now, I'm reading a book on.
The daughters of Gingiss con by Jack Weatherford and he wrote this brilliant biography of Genghis Khan. Genghis kind of the making of the modern world. So anyway, I'm going along and I'm reading this book for fun. Now I could make myself go through it faster if I wanted to, but I don't know what I'd be missing because sometimes you miss things too, when you speed read and you certainly cannot speak, I could never speed read a book on complexity theory or something like that. I have to go through it. So. It's almost like the things you most would like to be able to speed read through. Yes. I've read 15 books this month, you know, on some esoteric, deep, scientific concept. I just can't do that because it's tough material and you have to build those structures gradually as you're developing it.
So what I'm really saying is it depends a lot on the material. You speed read if it's kind of lighter material, you can pick up the key points and you can get away with it and you can call, it's speed reading in. It kind of is, but it's lighter material and
Jonathan Levi: I would agree with you.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Yeah, so you can't do it with everything, and then when you do it, to me, it like loses some of the pleasure of just reading for fun.
Jonathan Levi: I would also agree with you. And one thing that I think we talked about, you know, as a teacher, you, you grow and you adapt and you learn so much from your students. And I realized, for me as a student speed reading was the sexy thing, right?
Because I learned a lot of these techniques with private tutors before going to business school, I was like, I'm not going to suffer like I did in my undergraduate, you know, being behind the class. And so I learned it at, for necessity, which was getting through business cases, which are pretty light reading, you know, what is the executive team look like?
And just reading, even the finance stuff in business school. There's a lot of examples in cases, and you're not reading like a quantum mechanics equations. And then I, you know, I put up this course and it had a larger emphasis, I would say it was about 50% about speed reading. And I, over the years have tapered that down to 40% and 30% because I realized people get too hung up on the speed reading. And you know, our claim is I can help you learn things three times faster. And I believe that claim. And I also believe your course can help people learn things faster, but I realized people were taking that to mean, if you read faster, you'll learn faster and that's not true. Reading faster is one element of a much larger skillset, which is chunking visual mnemonics, deliberately spacing out your learning, and so on and so forth. And so I realized, and also what we did is we pushed the speed reading to the end of the course. So now I don't even teach people anything about speed reading until they've spent six weeks working on their memory, their habits, so on and so forth.
So I agree with you for the most part. And I also think that speed reading has this nasty history of snake oil, salesmen, and saleswomen. In the case of Evelyn Wood who claimed 4,000 words per minute. And despite the fact that Ann Jones has proven her ability to read 4,500 words per minute, I don't think that that is realistic for most people. Just like it's not realistic for me to keep up with Michael Phelps in a swimming pool or probably on a track for that matter. So I agree with you and I, I always tell people that speed reading is a tool and a skill for a specific purpose. I like to compare it, I find it interesting, you and I both use metaphors with the car backing up.
I love to teach in metaphors. I compare it to walking on my hands. It's very hard to learn, but I can walk on my hands. I can stand on my hands for a minute, sometimes a minute and a half. It's never going to be as comfortable for me or as pleasurable for me as just standing on my feet. But it's a really handy skill to have, and I can do it for bursts of time.
But if I'm going to be walking Machu Picchu, I'm going to do it on my feet. And I do think, you know, I, I enjoy speed reading because I get to the good stuff faster and certain things that we'll be able to speed read, other things were pros is the joy. So any of the George R. Martin books where you're enjoying this medieval banter conversation between the characters, I can't speed read and I wouldn't speed read because if you're taking the whole pleasure out.
And there's other things like right now, I'm reading Tim Ferriss's Tools of Titans. And it's basically a paragraph about an idea, a paragraph about an idea, you know, here's this expert and he recommended that you drink Apple cider vinegar, and honey, here's an explanation. And by the time you get up to speed the paragraphs already over.
And so I'm having a hell time and I'm sitting there, I'm like, I'm a speed reading teacher and this thing's taken me hours to get through because 30% of the book is just headings, you know, and you need to pay attention to the headings and it's just proven impossible to speed read, except for the rare chapter where it's like four or five pages.
I have a story that someone told him or so I agree with you for the most part. I agree with you. And I think it's a skill that, that is really valuable to have, especially if you're in an academic setting, and let's be honest, we all procrastinate. We find ourselves saying, Oh my God, I have to know this case by the lecture, which is 20 minutes from now. It's really great to be able to understand 80, 85% of that lecture. In a third of them, it's not something that I'm doing in the bathtub. Let's put it that way.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Well, just listening to your discussion, it brings a question to mind about sort of the two different foci of our approaches. So what I try to do in learning how to learn and in the book of mine for numbers. And, uh, and I have a new book coming out called “Learning How To Learn”.
Jonathan Levi: Oh, congratulations.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, I'm so excited will be coming out in August of next year, but I'll, you should see the illustrations. They are so fun. When I talked about the octopus of attention, the octopus looks so funny, but anyway, so my focus is more on, even if you're a slow learner, how can you leverage that to be effective and successful as a learner?
And your focus is more on how do you speed up your learning? I think.
Jonathan Levi: Yes.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Along with different things and so I'm fascinated by that and I would love to acquire some of those traits of course because I'm a very slow learner actually. But as I talk about in the course that actually can be a hidden advantage for you because it gives you a way of learning that allows you to simplify and see the real nitty-gritty of things more easily than someone who is sort of being a race car driver through the material.
Yeah, but let's go to a specific challenge that I have. So you talked earlier about, you know, part of it is believing that you can do these kinds of things. So for example, I teach classes, regular face-to-face classes, and I always challenge myself to learn students' names and I'm better than I was some years back, but still let's say that I walk into class. There's 50 students. I'm not like Nelson Dallas, the four-time US memory in who you just tell me the name and I got it. And the next name and I got it because you'll be introducing me to Jason or to Dunia or something like that and I'm going, Jason, let's see, okay. Uh, yeah. You're like my nephew, Jason, except you're a little shorter.
Well, by that time, we're at four people along and I just sorta missed the next four names.
Jonathan Levi: Right.
Dr. Barbara Oak: How do you show swiftly? Like if I'm introduced to a group of five people, I'm still working on name number three and then I forget name number one, and then they're on named four already. So what's tips can have, I mean, I know all about the theoretical
Jonathan Levi: Mnemonics and the visual techniques and everything.
Dr. Barbara Oak: I'm just slow.
Jonathan Levi: So a wise woman once told me about 45 minutes ago, practice makes perfect. And this is, uh, this is exactly that is, in the beginning, it takes a long time to form these visual symbols because it's a new form of creativity. It's like, okay, I don't know a, but it kind of sounds like Bunia which in Hebrew is okra. So can I picture her, you know, with a piece of okra on her head and just get there quickly. It's kind of a weird form of creativity that we suppress, which is crazy offensive, violent sexual imagery. That's obviously what works best and it's pretty offensive to put a big pile of slimy okra on Daniel's head.
I would probably figure out away, you know, that she would have a D or something, and then, but it's just practice. And I also do have another technique, which is a lot of times, you know, well, because there's a culture of us, not, I think many people as Harry Lorraine told me the vast majority of people forget because they don't listen and I'm not saying that's you, but we have this culture of, let me just shake the hands of five people. One second, each John, Michael, Tim, Edward, and we don't actually listen. And so it is very fast. And if you were to have people go one by one in a row of 50, it's very fast. So what I'll do is if I'm teaching a class, I'll say, Hey, tell me your name and one thing you're looking forward to or whatever, you know, some kind of icebreaker. And if I'm meeting people and shaking their hands, I'll take a couple of seconds. I'll force in a couple of seconds by repeating their name, not so much for the memory aspect of it, but to make sure that I get the pronunciation correct.
And give me time, one side effect that I've noticed. And this has happened to me a couple of times, especially I live in Israel where sometimes they hear new trendy names like ocean, young, and what has happened is I've misheard a name, I've encoded it and it's there. And for weeks months, I will use that person's name thinking, I'm saying it right until they say, listen, my name is actually yum.
You know, or, or instead of Doron, it's a Dolon or God knows what. So I'll repeat the name, and I'll say nice to meet you, and that gives me at least one or two seconds to work on the symbol.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Okay. I think part of it is there's something that is, it's like this fear reaction when I'm meeting people. So I get their name and then it's like, Oh, I have half a second here to memorize it. And instead of going, okay, I got it. I got it. It's like, Oh my God, half a second. There's this
Jonathan Levi: Which to be fair, Nelson can do, you know, 150 names in a few minutes and that's just a practice thing. He also, I think at the level of competition, he probably has a symbol ready for Jason, Tim, Michael. I don't actually know how the names and faces competition works, you know, in the world memory championships, but it wouldn't surprise me knowing how they do the numbers and knowing how they do the cards if they did the homework in advance so that they already know the symbol for Jason and then it's just a matter of assembling a memory palace, you know, for all the names that they get in the order that they get. But, um, I mean, I guess that the like also business leader in me would say that I think we all rush too quickly into people's names and take a moment like to look the person in the eye and ask them a question about themselves when you can and that as a feminist gives you an opportunity to then set a symbol and takes off that pressure of half a second. But, you know, we can recognize an image in a hundred milliseconds, recent research shows. They used to think it was 150 to 300. Now we know from implanting electrodes in the brain, that hundred milliseconds to recognize an image. I wouldn't be surprised if we could theoretically conjure one in about twice that time, you know, so 200 milliseconds versus half a second is still cutting it close. But you practice, you can learn, you know, for me, Jason has always Jason Statham. Tim has always Tim cook. I just picture the person kind of hugging Tim cook and you get to a point where only the Donnie is, are really creative work.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Okay. You know, I always hate it when people say but and it is practice. You're exactly right and the challenge for me is when I have like, I'm working on scripts right now, I've got literally hundreds of emails every day and so forth. And then I do like to have a little time where I have downtime and I just read and watch television with my husband, go for a walk, and so forth.
And if I had a nickel for everything that people said, well, you just practice and you could get really good at it. You know, for example, learning Spanish or brushing up on my Russian or doing all these other things. So it's really difficult for me to parse out sometimes because
Jonathan Levi: I agree.
Dr. Barbara Oak: You know, you just have so many things going on.
Jonathan Levi: I agree. And that's another thing that we realized, as I said, I learned so much from my students. I realized, you know, we offer games, we just launched a new games engine, which gives people images to memorize. It gives them lists of words to try and create the visual chunks and, you know, we have a game for everything like learning, chunking, and it's beautiful.
Our software developer did an amazing job. And at the end of the day, I tell people I would rather you practice, like trial by fire in the moment. So we built this beautiful game for memorizing images. Like you need to remember if it was cat tennis, ball, you know, whatever. I would much rather people get out there and memorize the names of everyone in the floor above them at work because it's just better practice.
And for speed reading, I'd much rather versus me giving them a bunch of reading. They don't care about it. I tell them speed read your, emails, speed read your homework speed read the case study at work. And that's exactly what I mean is just keep using the techniques in real-world environments, applying them to the actual cause that does two things One, it saves you time.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Right.
Jonathan Levi: When you're actually learning stuff that you need to, the practice is the work. And number two, you're going to find adaptations. So I'm in the middle of doing a series of interviews with students that some of them are more successful students to see if there are things we can extract to teach other students. And the invariably, the number one criteria of successful students in our course so far, besides not procrastinating, obviously is adaptation. Every time that I meet a student who's met or exceeded my own level of learning capacity like we have one guy who's learned seven languages, it always starts with, well, I don't want to offend you, but what you said about this didn't work for me so I just did this instead, and invariably that's like one of the big things is making the technique, your own and adapting it. And I always learned something I'm like, wow, that is really good why did I organize my memory palaces like that? When I could have done it the way you do it? It's so interesting for me.
Dr. Barbara Oak: I think what you're bringing up is a fantastic point here. And that is we just forget how, how much we can learn about learning by talking with others who've really been through the trenches of whatever that particular type of learning is. And the more we can kind of talk to one another and learn from one another and put a focus on learning about learning the better off we're going to be and
Jonathan Levi: Absolutely.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Uh, certainly, it's that way for me in my life.
Jonathan Levi: I absolutely agree. Great, well, Barbara, I know our time is limited and you've been so generous with your time. I'd like to ask you two questions. One is, can we be super SuperFriends?
Abs I think we already are.
So yeah, best answer. And the second one is, can we talk again? I would love to wrap again, you know, in the near future when your second book comes out, hear all about it.
Dr. Barbara Oak: Okay. It's a deal.
Jonathan Levi: Perfect. So then I will only ask you the last two questions. First one is where would you like us to send people to the Coursera course? Obviously, we'll link them to your books on Amazon, but is there anywhere specific where you'd like people to go if they want to get in touch?
Dr. Barbara Oak: Oh, okay. So the Coursera course is terrific. And then also my website BarbaraOakley.com is it has links to the course, my books, and all that kind of good stuff. So, and there's also contact information there. So I would be happy to see you there.
Jonathan Levi: Awesome. I'm excited. And we'll put all those links in the blog firstname.lastname@example.org for everyone who wants to check them out.
And then the last question I'll ask is if people really are only able to remember ironically, one big message from this episode and they take it with them for the rest of their lives, what would you hope for that message to be?
Dr. Barbara Oak: Learning is creating a pattern in your brain, and the more you practice with that pattern, the stronger and more easily, that pattern will be there for you to use again in the future.
Jonathan Levi: I love it, Barb this has been the most fun thing I've done this week so far, and I really, really appreciate you sharing your time and your wisdom.
Dr. Barbara Oak: It's early in the week, that's true. But look forward to speaking again. Thank you so much.
Jonathan Levi: I'm looking forward to it too. Thanks so much.
All right, SuperFriends, that is all we have for you today. But I hope you guys really enjoyed the show and I hope you learned a ton of actionable information tips, advice that will help you go out there and overcome the impossible. If you've enjoyed the show, please take a moment to leave us a review on iTunes or Stitcher, or drop us a quick little note on the Twitter machine @gosuperhuman.
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Closing: Thanks for tuning in to The Becoming SuperHuman Podcast. For more great skills and strategies, or for links to any of the resources mentioned in this episode, visit www.becomingasuperhuman.com/podcast. We'll see you next time.