Barbara Oakley: «When we learn, we change the structure of the brains»

Barbara Oakley teaches how to learn since she knows from the first hand how to do it – from being philologist specialising on Slavic Languages, she became an engineer and the distinguished professor of engineering sciences. Zhanara Rakhmetova met with Barbara Oakley to discuss online learning and how to learn efficiently as well as to understand why it is important for everyone to know mathematics. 
Zhanar Rakhmetova

November 20, 2019

What are the benefits of online learning? 

Online learning is like learning from a book but even better because you hear and a see the instructor's explanations. For example, you can read a book on how neurons work, but in the video you can actually see the professor pointing at how neurons are interconnected. Hence, it is easier to comprehend the material.

Recently, I was talking to a medical doctor. He was top of his class at the medical school, but hardly ever went to the classes. Instead he watched the available videos, read books and actively learned the materials. When you go to the class you are in a way wasting the time because you are taking notes, after awhile you lose track and you are just being a stenographer. But sometimes you do not need a teacher to put the information into your brain.

Another benefit of learning online is that it is possible to become part of the global community, which is never possible learning in a conventional way. For example, you can connect on discussion forums of online courses with people from India, Chile, the USA, China, while being in Kazakhstan. 

But sometimes you do not need a teacher to put the information into your brain

There is a lot of information online. Could you suggest ways to find the right online courses? 

There is a website called The website provides information on all the different MOOCs (stands for massive open online course; pronounced "mook") from all the different platforms with thousands and thousands of online courses. For instance, if you are interested in JAVA programming language, or marketing or a certain author, you just type the subject or the name of the author in the search box and you will instantly see a list of all the relevant courses from different platforms along with their reviews from thousands of students who have taken them previously. 

Nowadays there are still too few women in STEM. Why do you think that is and what would you advise to parents and teachers of girls to encourage them to go into these fields? 

Women's and men's brains work pretty much the same. Girls have exactly the same abilities at maths as boys. However starting from toddlerhood girls on average have slightly more advanced verbal skills than boys. That is why little girls often speak a bit earlier than little boys. Although her maths abilities are just as strong the girl often finds that she is better at verbal skills than at maths, while the little boy finds that his maths skills are better than his verbal skills. Since passions typically develop around what you are good at when we tell girls "follow your passion" what we are really telling them is to pursue fields which require strong verbal skills such as humanities, rather than maths and science, even though their maths abilities are equally strong. 

It has been hypothesized that because of that early verbal advantage often women come to believe that they are only good at humanities while they also could have been just as good in maths and science, leading to the lesser representation in the sciences. That is why I strongly recommend a extra maths practice for girls as they are growing up to help them bring their maths skills up to their already high verbal abilities. Just an extra twenty minutes of maths a day with the foundation of a well thought out program can be very helpful for them in the future.

For our two daughters I decided that I was going to choose one thing that I would make them do and that was a little bit of extra maths. Both of our daughters were in the Japanese maths program called Kumon Mathematics. There is a new online program that is very similar to Kumon which is called Smartick. You can introduce additional maths practice at any age. If your daughter is fourteen, you can start at that age. We started at age three. Our daughters did not practice every single day without fail. Sometimes we would go on vacation and skip a couple of weeks. But mostly I just kept at it year after year until they were probably teenagers. And it worked. For example, our older daughter was not very good at maths. Nonetheless, she just finished her medical residency at Stanford University. It was that extra little bit of maths practice in her childhood that helped her. Our younger daughter is an artist, but she took calculus for fun in college and got a perfect marks. It does not matter whether your child is artistic or math oriented just that little bit of extra practice can be invaluable.

Our daughters started learning math at the age of three, but it is possible to start anytime. Even if your daughter is fourteen, go ahead! Today's modern day and age require the mastery of the quantitative skills. Maths opens all career doors. However, without the maths background, you are already eliminating all these modern fields that really pay well. 

Today's modern day and age require the mastery of the quantitative skills

With the latest advances in the study of child development, neuroscience and technology, what are the most effective ways for children to learn? 

Learning always comes down to being able to make links between neurons in the long term memory. If you cannot do that, you are not learning anything. For thousands of years people thought that the only way you could learn something is by memorizing. Unfortunately, in the last 50-70 years it was believed that memorizing does not help learning as some psychologists have said that you do not need to memorize or remember anything because you can always look it up. But would I know how to speak Russian if I just had to look it up? You have to internalize some facts. It does not mean that you have to memorize every single thing, but you do need to memorize key facts, so that your brain can form the pattern recognition that grows from these facts. If you do not have the facts in the long term memory, you cannot retain your understanding. You cannot even build your understanding. This is especially important for abstract things such as maths. That is why it is very important to provide children with the sound factual basis. Look at the U.S. today. It is thought to be one of the most advanced countries in the world. In reality though U.S. students rank at the bottom among the advanced nations. I think this is due to the fact that the U.S. relied too much on the approach of never having to put information into the long term memory. 

What you really need is the synthesis of memorization and understanding. I truly believe that the next advancements in learning will take the best of traditional techniques for teaching and learning and meld them with what we know from neuroscience to be effective. Just do not think that having access to online courses, or computers for all students is the answer. They are simply tools that make the process of learning more convenient. You can do the same things without the technology. There is no magic. The key is to be able to get the information into children's long term memory. 

What is the best way to put the information into the long term memory?

The best way to create the relevant neural links is by learning the material and then checking to retrieve it. Retrieval solidifies the information in the long term memory. For example, after you have read one page, look away and then try to recall what you have read. It does not only allow you to organize the information, but also to save it as a unit of information in your brain. So that you are not just remembering facts but the entire concept. 

What is your favourite learning technique? 

The Pomodoro Technique is a wonderful life hack. It helps to step back in your mind and look at things from a fresh perspective. I think everybody has experiences in life where you are stuck on something and you leave and later the answer comes to you, or you are just able to move further once you go back to the problem, only because your mind has had time to reflect on it. 

The Pomodoro Technique 

The essence of the technique is to get rid of all destructions (eg. pop ups on your phone or laptop).
Set a timer for twenty five minutes.
Work as intently as you can for twenty five minutes.
Afterwards, give yourself a five minute break. You might think that during that five minute break nothing is going on, but actually your brain is using a different process to build neural networks, to analyze information and to look for patterns.
When you learn you are literally changing the structure of your brain. It is very similar to lifting weights. In weightlifting, you are not going to cram the night before and compete in the Olympics the next day. You need time to train your body and build muscles with proper breaks in between. Similarly, in learning one has to go through cycles such as focus, relaxation, focus and then sleep. Learning does not happen instantly. It requires building neural architecture. To build that neural structure you have to do the right thing in the right sequence over time just like you would build the muscular structure. That is why the Pomodoro Technique works so well. 

The Pomodoro Technique also teaches you to focus better. People's biggest problem, especially in learning is procrastination. When we think about something that we do not want to do, we activate the pain centers in our brains. As a result brain tells you: "let's think of something else". But in reality, you only procrastinate. If you use the Pomodoro Technique, do not think about what you have to do, just set the timer and start doing it.

Also, I cannot recommend more strongly just making a habit of reading. I read a book a week and just love biographies. If all you can read is just one page a day, read one page a day. 

How could parents help children succeed without putting too much pressure on them?

I think being enthusiastic is very important. Both, my husband and I were always very excited when our children were learning and we always instilled that excitement in them. 

Do not try to make your children do everything. They may be perfect as a result, but they will not be creative. Besides, there is evidence from neuroscience that focusing all the time suppresses the diffuse mode of thinking that is involved in creative thought processing. That is why free time is important, since it allows the imagination to consolidate. When our children were growing up we exposed them to a lot of things. They would take different mini classes and if they were interested in something, they would pursue it. If they did not like it, they would move on to something else with the exception of maths practice which they never quit. 

I think one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is that they never disapproved of me
I think one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is that they never disapproved of me. They encouraged me when I was flunking in maths and found me a tutor. But they never criticized me for getting a "C" in class. It is important to remember the phrase: "A students work for C students". Often times those who are not very good in school are also willing to break the rules rather than doing what they are supposed to do. Being able to break the rules about learning also means that you are able to break the rules about other things. This means that you can be more creative. You can take risks as an entrepreneur which other people may not be able to do because they want to be perceived as the perfect person. 

What would you advise to women who after considerable time off (due to longer maternity leave for instance) would like to reinvent themselves and pursue other callings? 

When my husband and I had our children I stayed at home for about five years. I am very glad I did that. I would advise to stay-at-home moms not to drive yourselves crazy with worrying about what are you going to do when you do go back to the workforce. Something will come up to you, as long as you keep yourself open to the opportunities that come your way. You will be very happy that you were involved in the family. While it is challenging to take care of the family and at the same find ways to build a career, we, women are very fortunate. Guys are often stuck. They got a career and they are stuck with it, whereas women can pause for awhile and then think of opoprtunities to change career. I believe women have far more opportunities to change careers. 

Photos were provided by Aigerim Hafizova

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