If only I’d been taught to learn

Image of Simon Kuper

I still remember the boy who, on his first day of school, had to be carried bodily into class by a phalanx of teachers and parents. As the other six-year-olds sat brightly at their desks, he sobbed: “I don’t want to go to school!”

Looking back decades later, he was quite right. My 12 years at school were boring and mostly pointless. I barely remember a thing I was taught after learning to read and count. I learnt more about how to write from George Orwell’s 14-page essay “Politics and the English Language” than in all my school years. Nor was I taught much by way of reasoning (which may, of course, be why I’ve ended up a columnist). I wasted the years when my brain was still fairly porous. This experience is probably common but it might all have been different if only someone had taught me one crucial skill: how to learn. Now that my daughter is seven, and setting off on the long slog, I’m planning to issue her with the crucial information beforehand.

Schools, like offices, are structured around the notion of facetime. The easiest thing to measure is that you are there, and so they measure that. In my day, 30 kids of different abilities and concentration spans were crammed into a room with sealed windows, while a teacher wrote things on a blackboard. We were taught stuff every day – but never how to absorb it. And yet the basics of how to learn are so simple that they can be transmitted in an 800-word column.

The main study tool I learnt as an adult is: nap. Scholars of sleep agree that a brief nap can recharge the brain. “A nap as short as 10 minutes can significantly improve alertness,” says Maurice Ohayon, director of Stanford University’s sleep epidemiology research centre. Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Albert Einstein all knew this.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find out until I was grown up. As a teenager you need oodles of sleep, and many school mornings I was too tired to learn (especially aged 16, when I decided I could train myself to cope on four hours’ sleep). The lesson I never had was, “Instead of trying to do two hours of homework now, sleep for 15 minutes and then do it all in an hour.”

In my work flat in Paris today, my key pieces of office furniture are my sofa and blanket. But I grew up in countries where naps were considered proof of laziness instead of productivity boosters. The ignorance persists: according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2010, only 5 per cent of American employers had an on-site “nap room” (often probably just a couple of sticky mattresses lying side by side).

Years after leaving school, I made my second belated discovery about learning: how to remember. (Memorising is another skill that becomes almost pointless after school but, again, it’s easy to measure, so schools measure it.) My breakthrough came at a picnic in Central Park, New York. My then girlfriend was complaining to a friend that whenever she mentioned a past quarrel to me, I couldn’t remember it. She always had to tell me what we’d quarrelled about, before explaining why I’d been wrong. The friend, who was a brain surgeon, asked the girlfriend: “Do you keep a diary?” “Yes,” said the girlfriend. “That’s why you remember,” said the brain surgeon. The girlfriend engraved the experience on her memory by repeating it.

It turns out you remember things through periodic repetition – and not through one night’s frantic cramming just before the test. For instance, if you want to remember that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066, revise the fact for one minute every evening for a week, instead of for 10 minutes on the last evening. Periodic repetitions imprint it on your brain. This is the “spacing effect”, which the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered in 1885. I discovered it too late.

Tej Samani, founder of Performance Learning, a British company that helps students to learn, has a favourite technique that uses the spacing effect. To remember the date 1066, for instance, write it on a Post-it note on your bedroom window. You will see it every day – and through repetition you will come to associate “1066” with “window”. If you think “window”, you remember 1066. Samani’s students have facts and formulas stuck up around their bedrooms. “I’m a huge believer in learning without putting too much effort in,” he says. “People judge success based on, ‘I did 15 hours of revision this week.’ Brilliant. How much of it do you remember? Maybe an hour.”

You often make the best discoveries in one sudden cognitive leap. I still remember the moment, aged 14, when I finally grasped, after months of exhausted incomprehension, that the third line on the graph represented the third dimension. Perhaps my daughter will have that same “Eureka” feeling when I make her read this column.


Twitter @KuperSimon

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