Transcript: Barbara Oakley on Learning How to Learn at TEDxOaklandUniversity

The following is the transcript of Engineering professor Barbara Oakley’s TED Talk on Learning How to Learn at TEDxOaklandUniversity.

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Dr. Barbara Oakley – Professor of Engineering, Industrial & Systems Engineering, Oakland University

I grew up moving all over the place. By the time I’d hit 10th grade, I’d lived in 10 different places. Math is extraordinarily sequential. By the time I’d hit 3rd grade, I’d fallen off the math bandwagon. Basically, I flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. So it’s a little strange looking back now because today I am a professor of engineering and I’m passionate about my job.

One day, one of my students found out about my past, and he asked me, “How did you do it? How did you change your brain?” And I thought, you know, “How did I do it?” I mean, here I was, this little kid, and I just loved language and culture, and that’s all I wanted to learn when I grew up, but I didn’t have the money to go to college, so I enlisted in the army right out of high school to learn a language. You can see me there, looking very nervous, about to throw a grenade. And I did learn a language. I’d learned Russian, and I ended up working out on Soviet trawlers, up on the Bering Sea, as a Russian translator.

So, I just love adventure and getting new perspectives. So I also ended up in Antarctica, at the South Pole Station. That’s where I ended up meeting my husband. So I always say — I had to go to the end of the Earth to meet that man. But I begin to realize something, though. I was doing all these adventures and seeing these new perspectives, but somehow they were always external. They weren’t internal; I wasn’t changing inside.

When I’d worked in the military, I worked with all these West Point engineers, and they had these powerful techniques for problem solving. I thought, I’d look sometimes at what they were doing, and they had these calculus and physics books, and it looked like hieroglyphics to me. But I thought, “What if I could get those ideas? What if I could learn that language?” I mean, the world’s evolving. Language and culture are important, but math, and science, and technology are important, too. What if I could learn these new ideas and add them to the ideas I already knew and loved?

So, when I got out of the military, at age 26, I decided to try and change my brain. It wasn’t easy. But if I knew then what I know now about how to learn, I could have learned much more easily and much more effectively.

So, several years ago, as I began trying to answer that student’s question, “How did I change my brain?”, I began reaching out to top professors from around the world, people who not only had knowledge of their difficult areas of expertise, but also who could teach effectively. And I asked them. I said, “How did you learn? And how do you teach, so others could learn?” What I found was the way they learned, and the way they taught was often similar to the way I learned and I taught. It was almost like this kind of shared fraternal handshake. But we often didn’t know why we did what we did. So I began researching neuroscience and cognitive psychology, and reaching out to talk to top experts of those fields.

Here is what I found, the keys to learning effectively. Now as we know, the brain is enormously complex. But we can simplify its operation into two fundamentally different modes. The first is just what I’ll call the focus mode. The focus mode is just like it sounds like: you turn your attention to something and boom. It’s on. But the second mode is a little different. It’s a relaxed set of neural states that I’ll call the diffuse mode. It’s a number of resting states.

So it seems that, when you’re learning, you’re going back and forth between these two different modes. How can we better understand these modes? Through analogy. What we’re going to use is a pinball machine analogy. You all know how pinballs work. You just pull back on a plunger, and the ball goes boinking out and bounces around on the rubber bumpers, and that’s how you get points.

So what we’re going to do is we’re going to take this pinball and we’re going to put it right on your brain. So, there it is. There’s the pinball machine on your brain. And if you look, this is the analogy for the focus mode. When you’re learning, you’re often thinking tightly, as you’re focusing on something. It involves thoughts you’re somewhat familiar with, perhaps historical patterns, or you’re familiar with the multiplication table. So you think a thought, and it takes off, and moves along smoothly, pretty much along the pathways that you’ve already laid.

But what if the thought you’re thinking is actually a new thought, a new concept, a new technique that you’ve never thought of before? Well, that’s symbolized by this new pattern towards the bottom of the pinball machine metaphor. To get to this new place, I mean, at least sort of metaphorically speaking, look at all the rubber bumpers that are in the way. How can you even get there? You need a different way of thinking, a new perspective in a sense, and that’s provided here by the diffuse mode. Look at how far apart those rubber bumpers are from one another. When you think a thought, it takes off, and it can range very widely, as you’re attempting to come up with some new ideas. So, you can’t do that careful, focused thinking that you can in the focus mode, but you can, at least, get to the place you need to be in to grapple with these new ideas.

So the bottom line for all of us out of this is this: when you’re learning, you want to go back and forth between these modes, and if you find yourself, as you’re focusing in on something, trying to learn a new concept or solve a problem, and you get stuck, you want to turn your attention away from that problem and allow the diffuse modes, those resting states, to do their work in the background.