Jonathan Levi: What if Schools Taught Us How to Learn at TEDxWhiteCity (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of entrepreneur Jonathan Levi’s TEDx Talk: What if Schools Taught Us How to Learn at TEDxWhiteCity conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the speaker bio here.

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Jonathan Levi – Experienced entrepreneur

The way that we learn is broken. OK, it’s not quite broken, because broken would imply that it was working well to begin with. But it is inefficient and it’s ineffective and it’s really hopelessly outdated. I mean, sure, it’s gotten us to where we are today, and with enough effort it does get the job done, sort of.

But let’s face it, the way that we actually learn new information has not changed since the advent of character-based writing systems. Now at the same time we’re faced with exponentially more information than any generation ever to come before us. According to UNESCO, in the U.S. alone, 300,000 books will be published next year. In China, that number is half a million, that’s one book for every 2,000 people but it doesn’t even include a huge number, possibly a larger number of scientific publications and blog posts and magazine editorials and, of course, internet memes.

Now on top of all of this information overload, our lives and our livelihoods have become inextricably linked to rapid and lifelong learning. Most of us will change careers at least a few times throughout our lives, and even if we don’t, we’ll be forced to grapple with an ever growing body of knowledge in our respective fields. If you don’t believe me, ask any doctor or any programmer, just how much of their daily work revolves around innovations of just the last 10 years.

So what if we could learn as rapidly as society progresses, if we could, say, read a book or a new scientific publication or lunch and remember it with the same clarity that we remember our most vivid memories. Now for me learning has always been interesting, and by interesting, I mean absolutely frustrating.

You see, growing up with ADD or as I prefer to call it the entrepreneurs disease, I struggled for most of my youth to sit still in an academic setting long enough to learn much of anything. And yes, that’s me running out of the photo. I’m really glad that I can laugh about it today, because at the time it actually spurt on a pretty serious bout of depression and I wasn’t succeeding in school and honestly I felt completely stupid. It eventually got so bad that medication seemed to be the only option.

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And so I spent most of my high school and university careers, clutching onto a bottle of prescription medication, just trying to bring myself into the state of mind that I thought was normal, all behind the cause of learning more effectively.

By the age of 24, medication had paid off pretty nicely for me. I had graduated from Berkeley and I’d sold my startup. I’d been accepted to a great business school, and sure, learning was not easy. And I still struggled a lot and like most of you, I forgot everything that I learned the second I left the exam room. But I’ve been able to learn a ton. And at this point, to be honest, I thought that I was pretty smart.

But life has an interesting way of correcting you every time you think you’re pretty smart. And so it was at this point that I met what I would later come to call a super learner, by the name of Lev. Now I realize that Lev was a little bit different when he and I began sharing common interests around the office. You see, whereas I would read and share maybe one article that I found interesting, Lev would read and share 10 in the span of 15 minutes and he would do it with half a page of commentary for each article. After a very very awkward conversation and prolific use of words like ‘BS’ and ‘that’s impossible’, I came to understand that Lev could actually read 2000 words a minute and his retention was around 90%.

Now I’d played around with speed reading and so I was reading at a respectable 450 words a minute, that’s about twice the average college graduate. But my retention was around 10% to 20%. Well, it turns out that Lev and his wife Anna had spent the last 10 years developing and refining and teaching methods for accelerated learning in students with learning disabilities, just like mine. Needless to say, I immediately hired them for one on one coaching and they proceeded to completely deconstruct my entire learning behavior set from the ground up.

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I should mention, by the way, that all during this time I had decided to take a little vacation from my medication and yet somehow I was learning more effectively than ever before. When I took these skills out into the real world during my MBA, I saw just how life-changing and impactful they were.

And so some of the first things that I applied them to after graduation were how to create online courses and how to publish books, how to manage a podcast, how to give a public lecture, talk. And today between all those different channels, we’ve actually taught 50,000 people how to learn more effectively, from medical and law students to individuals overcoming brain damage, to people living with cerebral palsy.

So what’s the secret, right? In all truth, it’s not a secret. The techniques — they’re things like visualizing your memories and getting rid of that memory voice thing that we all do — these techniques are all out there and they can be learned by anybody in a matter of weeks or months. The issue is that we’re trying to overcome this 21st century information overload with learning behaviors that are thousands of years old.

Ironically the big secret, if there is one, is that we need to use learning techniques that harness the capabilities our brains evolved to have hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Now what does this mean? Well, let me give you guys an example that demonstrates just how incredible your brain is when you use it the way evolution intended. I’m going to show you guys an image on the screen but don’t blink, because I’m only going to show it to you for about a second. Is everybody ready?

Now give me a show of hands if you think that you could maybe write just a short paragraph about what you saw on the screen. Now keep your hands up if you think that you could add maybe a line about the colors you saw, about the emotions that the characters might have been feeling, or about some historical context that you can connect it to. Okay, well I’m really thankful that it’s about 90% of you. And that’s exactly the point.