Here is the full transcript of Barbara Oakley’s talk on Learning How to Learn @ Talks at Google conference.
Introducing speaker: We have a very, very special guest with us today. I remember reading Charlie Munger saying that he didn’t know a smart man who didn’t read all the time. And he has categorized Warren Buffett as a learning machine.
The inspiration from there is how does one become a very effective learner? What is the science of learning? And reading Barb’s book, that is exactly what the book seems to be teaching us. And I have loved reading her book. Not only loved reading her book, I could identify that the voice in that book is the voice of a teacher, and that resonated a lot with me personally. So I’m very glad Barb is here with us today.
So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Barb Oakley.
Barbara Oakley: It’s such a pleasure to be here. And I’d like to begin by telling you a little story– another one. And this story is about– well, I think all of us love to watch other people, right? To some greater or lesser extent. And I love people watching.
And so I have to tell you about this one guy who was one of the most interesting people. I’ve ever watched. And this was when I was working down in Antarctica at McMurdo Station, and this guy’s name was Neil. And Neil was this thin, wispy little guy with kind of a high-pitched voice. And he had a big head, so he looked like this sort of upside-down exclamation point. And what Neil used to like to do is he liked to pick up the phone and answer it with a perfect imitation of the 6’8″ gorilla of a station manager, Art Brown.
So one day, phone rings. Neil picks it up, as usual…”Hello. This is Art Brown speaking.” And it was Art Brown on the other end of the line.
So Art says, who the heck is this? Or more unprintable words to that effect. happened to me early on I fell off the math bandwagon. Just said, I can’t do this. I hate it. I really want nothing to do with it at all. Science is the same way. And so I basically flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. And it’s really funny, thinking back on it now, because I’m a professor of engineering.
And I publish well in some of the top journals, so I do very well as an engineer. But one day, one of my students found out about my sordid past as a math flunky, and he asked me, he said, how’d you do it? How’d you change your brain? And I thought, you know, how did I do it? I mean, looking back on it, I was just this little kid, and I loved animals, and I liked fluffy, furry things, and I liked to knit, and I loved language and studying language.
And at that time, there weren’t college loans that were relatively straightforward to get. And so I really wanted to learn a language. And I couldn’t afford to go to school, and so how could I study language in that kind of situation? And there was one way I could do it.
I could actually go and learn a language and get paid for it while I was doing it. And that was to join the Army. And so that’s what I did. I joined the Army. And there you see me, looking incredibly nervous, about to throw a hand grenade.
And I did learn a language. I learned Russian. And I ended up working out on Russian trawlers, Soviet trawlers, up in the Bering Sea. And that’s me standing on a bunch of fish there. I can still swear quite well in Russian, although the rest of the Russian’s a little rusty.
But I loved having adventures and gaining new perspectives. And so I also ended up at the South Pole station in Antarctica. And that’s where I met my husband. So I always say, I had to go to the end of the Earth to meet that man, and I did. So the thing is, though, what was going on was I began to realize that you know, I was always interested in these new perspectives, but they always sort of perspectives that I was kind of comfortable with somehow.
You know, and having adventures, that’s sort of a comfortable thing. But I wasn’t actually kind of stretching myself to really have a totally new perspective, I thought back on the engineers that I’d worked with, West Point engineers, who were in the military. And I realized that their problem-solving skills were, in many ways, exceptional. They could think in a way that I couldn’t think. And I thought, you know, what if I could read these kinds of equations like they could read equations? What if I could, in some sense, learn the language that they were able to speak.
Could I actually change my brain to learn in that way? To learn what these people knew? And so as I began to try to answer that student’s question, how did you change your brain? I started working on a book to kind of describe what some of these key ideas were. And while I was working on this book, I did things like I went to ratemyprofessorscom. Probably a few of you who’ve been in schools realize that that’s a pretty good website. And I looked to see who were the top professors worldwide, teaching subjects like engineering, math, chemistry, physics, economics, a lot of really difficult subjects.