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

You see, as they say a picture is worth a thousand words and what you just did is the equivalent of inputting information at a rate of 60,000 words per minute; that’s six times the world record in speed reading. So congratulations, but I know what you’re going to say. It is not the same thing but why not? What if I told you that you could use this innate ability which we evolved as hunter-gatherers to rapidly understand and process visual information to read faster while retaining more? Or if I told you that you could use another great skill from the hunter-gatherer era that allows you to remember images with vivid clarity and use that to learn anything.

Now this image — how much did you guys get right? A surprising amount. This image might not mean anything to you but to someone who’s been trained just a little bit, it’s a surprisingly powerful way to learn the 14 countries that border China. Certainly much more interesting than looking at a list or memorizing a map. And sure, it’s ridiculous and it’s silly but I assure you it’s much more memorable to remember Stan Lee packing a suitcase or Kim Jong-un next to a 14 armed Emperor than it is to look at some map.

So when I put it this way and I explained that these are innate capabilities that we all have, why aren’t we all super learners? Well, simply put, there is a very big difference between the way we have to be taught to read and to learn, which is sounding it out, and the ideal method of sight reading which you just did. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, memory education which is the core basic fundamental that’s required for accelerating learning is never taught in schools. And reading training — well, that stops as soon as a child can read proficiently. This is a lot like teaching your children how to walk and then never explaining that the same basic fundamentals can be used for a much more efficient skill called running.

Consider this: You certainly don’t have to process linguistically your thoughts in order to understand them, right? I mean, imagine what the world would look like if you stepped out into the road and you saw a car approaching but were paralyzed until you could process your thoughts and plan linguistically what you were going to do next. Now consider how ridiculous it is that this is exactly how most people read.

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Of course, accelerating learning is about so much more than accelerating reading, and eventually if you do accelerate your reading, you need some way to store all these wonderful magical new memories. And this is where mnemonics or memory techniques come into play.

Now I know too many of you will say that you have a lousy memory but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, less than a third of your raw memory capability is determined by hardware or by genetics, the rest is determined by techniques — techniques that are used by thousands of people all over the world with lousy memories to do incredible feats, from memorizing 30,000 digits to memorizing a deck of cards in under a minute.

Now you might not want to do that, but what if I told you that you and your children could use these exact same techniques to learn anything from multiplication tables all the way up to those types of career impacting skills we mentioned before, like foreign languages or programming languages or the order of points in that talk you’ve been stressing about, the one where it would be really ironic if you forgot to say something. If I come off a little bit script that I do apologize but you’ve all been on a journey with me through a memory palace which is built in my childhood home. And as I make this point we’re about to transition from the guest bedroom into the hallway — hallway is as you can probably logically figure out our transition points.

Oh that reminds me. Did I mention that learning this way takes less effort and less time than the way we’re doing it now? With so much time saved on the inescapable basics, the things that every child will have to learn like language, just imagine how much more time we will have for creativity and divergent thinking and people skills and things that will actually make a difference in our children’s lives and in their livelihoods.

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So what’s the idea I want to impart to you guys today? It’s a simple one really. What if with all the learning future generations will be required to do, we actually taught them how to learn? What if instead of the rote memorization and the frustration that are so commonplace in our educational systems we utilized fun and engaging techniques that harness the innate capabilities of our brains?

Now this isn’t to say that there is no innovation happening in education, far, far from it. In fact, right now as we speak there is an initiative to fund and build schools where standing desks replace their seated counterparts. But these children will stand at their very forward-thinking desks and their very forward-thinking classrooms and they learn vocabulary words the same way their great grandparents did.

Since the 1950s, memory experts like Harry Lorayne and speed reading experts like Tony Buzan have taught tens of millions of people how to learn more effectively, and yet I’m not aware of a single education system that’s implemented a single class in learning practical, much less a series of classes that follow children through their education and through their intellectual development, the same way that math or history or science do. Nowhere in the world are children learning to build memory palaces or dueling code their thoughts with visual symbols or to get rid of that voice when they read.

With public school budgets constantly in jeopardy and ADD medications among the top prescribed and abused substances in the world, should we find a better less broken way to overcome this information overload? The techniques and strategies are out there and they can be taught to anybody in a matter of weeks or months. So let’s do it, let’s teach everybody, young and old, not just what they need to learn but also how they need to learn. If you ask me, our future depends on it.

Thank you.