Lessons Learned

Okay, here’s might be where I flunk out of that Coursera class.

Actually, that’s an overstatement, in my usual hyperbolic fashion. However, I do have a “capstone assignment” due tomorrow evening, in which I’m supposed to craft some creative portfolio that demonstrates everything I’ve learned, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of whatever students follow along after me. It’s the kind of project that would have benefitted from regular effort over a span of time, but my report from last night should indicate why and how that hasn’t been possible.

So, in defiance of all good habits for learning, I’ll be doing this capstone assignment in a hurried rush tonight, and, in the spirit of killing two birds with one stone (and knowing that tomorrow night is for choir and not for Coursera), I’ll be doing my “portfolio reflection” a la blogpost.

Shall we begin?

First, some context, since I don’t think I’ve said much about this class aside from that fact that I’m taking it. The class is called Learning how to Learn, and the primary instructor is Barbara Oakley, Professor of Engineering and author of A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra). Professor Oakley (and co-lead instructor Terrence Sejnowski from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) have distilled some basic-level insights about brain science into a 4-week sequence of tips and techniques to help people gain expertise and confidence in their own learning process/prowess.

psychology-mindsetI think I was a bit of an atypical student to be taking the class, since I already have a pretty strongly developed capacity for learning things, and since I work at a non-profit that has its own roots in the learning sciences. So I took the class more for the “kindergarten-level” brain science than for the actual “learning how to learn” piece. Having said that, there’s three primary threads of the course content that have been present with me during this month I’ve been dilettanting my way through the materials, so I’m going to give each of them a quick turn around my mental dance floor, as it were.

First off is the power of sleep. (A common topic ’round these parts.) I was already talking last night about the insight of how sleep allows your brain time to clean out toxic build-up. In addition to the NPR article I linked yesterday, here’s coverage from the NIH, the BBC, and the New York Times. Always a sucker for a good analogy, I think I’m most pleased by this quote from the BBC article, helping explain why the energy-intensive process of brain detoxing needs to occur during sleep rather than being a sort of maintenance that can happen while you’re awake and alert:

“The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states – awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up,” said researcher Dr Maiken Nedergaard.

“You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”

But in addition to the detoxifying potential of sleep (and the nightmares I will be having for months to come about the level of “brain poisons” I am likely building up with my insomniac lifestyle), the course has talked about the ways that sleep helps one form and consolidate memories, as well as pruning away less-valuable neural patterns to help strengthen more-useful ones. (See: relevant abstracts from Nature and PubMed.) One of Prof. Oakley’s suggestions is to go over a new piece of information or a problem to be solved right before going to bed, thus harnessing the brain’s innate sleepy-time processes for your benefit. Which is a interesting thing to contemplate in light of the fact that for every MOOC I’ve taken, that’s exactly what I’ve done. I download the videos onto my iPad and try to watch 15-20 minutes of content at night before going to sleep. It’s been working pretty well, and now I understand a bit more as to why.

Another theme also ties closely to something that’s been on my mind for a while: the power of handwriting. I already had two favorite articles (HuffPo and The Atlantic) talking about the learning benefits of taking handwritten notes; this class has added a few more sources, including the New York Times:

Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.

…and the Wall Street Journal:

Recent research in neuroscience, psychology and design shows that doodling can help people stay focused, grasp new concepts and retain information. A blank page also can serve as an extended playing field for the brain, allowing people to revise and improve on creative thoughts and ideas.

In addition to continuing my Mesozoic faithfulness to pen-and-paper note-taking, maybe it’s time for me to pull that purchased-but-never-read copy of The Doodle Revolution off the bookshelf and give it some attention.

The final thread for discussion is both most important to me and, alas, the one that’s going to get short shrift tonight: the power of a learner’s mindset. I cannot tell you the level of admiration I have for Carol Dweck’s work around the value of adopting a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. As summarized in Brain Pickings, the distinction is this:

A “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, and success is the affirmation of that inherent intelligence, an assessment of how those givens measure up against an equally fixed standard; striving for success and avoiding failure at all costs become a way of maintaining the sense of being smart or skilled. A “growth mindset,” on the other hand, . . . creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. Its hallmark is the conviction that human qualities like intelligence and creativity, and even relational capacities like love and friendship, can be cultivated through effort and deliberate practice.

I’ve talked before about my internal war between the paralysis of perfectionism and the simultaneous willingness to be an experimenter and a lifelong learner. The more I dig into Dweck’s work (see: OneDublin.org, Wall Street Journal, Education World, and Dweck’s own website), the more convinced I am that this internal struggle is one of unwinding the fixed mindset I’ve held in the past–an ego-identity of myself as the “smart girl” where I can’t dare make a mistake because that would prove me to be stupid–to adopt a growth mindset of seeing myself as a learner and an experimenter.*

It’s an ongoing process, but it’s one I’m glad to be undertaking, and I’m grateful for the extra fuel Oakley’s course has given to the endeavor.

* Might as well add another book to the reading list…


Image credit: Pixabay user johnhain. Unaltered. Public domain.

One thought on “Lessons Learned

  1. You’ve almost got your paper written! good job. And some interesting information. You go in the “save” file so I can go back and check your links. I’m always fascinated by the way the brain works and the brain/mind connection. Just last week (yeah, you’d think I’d have figured this out by now) I realized my journaling each morning (i.e. doodling ref), sitting in the rocking chair, still in my nightgown and with a good strong cup of tea beside me, is my way of getting my mind to work each day. When I don’t have time to write, or don’t for whatever reason, with or without tea, I’m more inclined to scatter my energies through the day.
    The quotes and links are valuable. Keep them in the paper is what I’d say.


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