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

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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