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

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

Jonathan Levi

Here is the full transcript of entrepreneur Jonathan Levi’s TEDx Talk: What if Schools Taught Us How to Learn at TEDxWhiteCity conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: What if Schools Taught Us How to Learn by Jonathan Levi at TEDxWhiteCity


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 But it is inefficient and it’s ineffective and it’s really hopelessly outdated.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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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