Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at the University of Oakland, Michigan, an expert in education and neuroscience, and the director of Coursera's Learning how to learn online course. Her course is the most popular in the world, with more than 2.8 million students. How do human beings learn? Through effective learning and time management. Oakley was a U.S. Army captain, a Russian translator on fishing vessels in the Beijing Sea, and a communicator at Antarctica's South Pole Station. VIA Empresa met Dr Oakley in the offices of ESIC - with whom she has been working since 2018 - before the lockdown when the world had not yet been hit by coronavirus. The interview was left on standby and, for better or worse, throughout this conversation you will not find the words Covid-19 or pandemic. But, I hope it serves as inspiration to remember where we came from, to rethink ourselves, and to portray the new Back to the Basics education movement.
You were a captain in the United States Army.
In the U.S. Army I learned to be with people I didn’t like, make bad decisions, and do things I didn’t want to do. It's a good education in what can happen to you in life if you lack discipline. The army was scary for me, there are very good people and I learnt a lot but it's not the best job. It was a great incentive to feel capable to technically do anything and be open to learning everything. My mind, attitude and body opened up.
You were also a Russian translator on fishing boats in the Beijing Sea, where you wrote the book Hair of the Dog: Tales from Aboard a Russian Trawler in 1996.
I studied Russian because I was very interested in the large groups who said communism was wonderful and those who said it was horrible. I thought: who's right? I didn't know who to believe... I learnt the language of the country in order to be able to discover what was happening for myself.
"Look at why governments fall: they promise good programmes that they can't fulfill and end up generating the opposite effect to what they intended"
Did you manage it?
I worked for the Soviets for quite a few years and it was a groundbreaking experience. Communism sounds wonderful and has great believers in an almost religious sense but you can also have someone at the top and you won’t succeed if you don’t think the same way. It reflects how easy it is for large groups of people to be deceived by propaganda. It is a fascinating phenomenon.
Look at why governments fall: they get beyond themselves and destroy themselves. They promise very good programmes that they cannot fulfill and end up generating the opposite effect to what they intended. Having very good intentions isn't enough and can be harmful.
What is the most important thing you've learnt in education?
Students don't know how to learn effectively. We teach teachers to educate better, but we don't educate students how to learn. It's amazing that we've been teaching subjects for 15 years but we don't educate about simple techniques that allow students to learn more effectively. We keep it a secret. It's time to pay more attention to students than we do to teachers.
"We teach teachers to educate better but we don't educate students how to learn"
How can we learn to learn?
What's the most effective way to learn scientific content? Read it and reread it, read it and underline the most important things, read it and make a concept map with the key ideas or read it carefully and see if you can remember what the key ideas are. Research says the best technique is the latter because retrieval practices make you gain intuition. It’s not just about memory, it’s about understanding it. Students don’t realise it, but reading and rereading is a waste of time. It's much better to try to remember and retrieve it yourself.
Remind me why.
It's the practice of retrieval. It's often said that teaching someone else is the best way to learn. What do you do then? You retrieve the information and use it. Again, retrieval. Concentrating is a good technique for practising attention. Without distractions. From neuroscience we know that cell phones are designed to be addictive. A good training method is to spend 45 minutes focused on something and take a 5 minute break without looking at your cell phone. Not thinking about anything helps your mind and offers you information you have been working on more creatively.
Is attitude more important than technique?
That’s easy to say... But if you don’t have the right technique, your attitude can collapse. In other words, you don’t develop a good attitude if you don’t have the right technique. Work in the background, rethink the technique and the mind map until it makes sense. When you're frustrated, go for a walk and it will make sense later. When you’re little you just know you’re frustrated but you don’t know that maybe later it will make more sense.
So is attitude overrated?
I think so. The functional memory is fixed and you can't change it. However, you can use different techniques depending on your own ability to help you succeed despite not having a great memory. You have to work to create these neurolinks, encourage creativity, and long-term memory.
"Students don’t realise it, but reading and rereading is a waste of time. It's much better to try to remember and gain intuition"
How would you define empathy? And altruism?
There are different ways to define empathy: the feeling of having the same feelings as another person. Meanwhile, altruism is about trying to help others. There's also pathological altruism, which is having the intention of helping others without objectively looking at whether it's helping or not. Help can also be harmful. I don't mean by this that social programmes don't work but that people prefer to believe that what they do helps others without thinking about whether it really is the case or not. It often happens in education that those who do research think that theirs is the best based on real assumptions but they don't follow any scientific method.
The bias of altruism.
You’re so convinced that what you do helps that you don’t pay attention to the data. There are geniuses who are so used to being right that when they are wrong they only look for ways to justify themselves intellectually so that they are not wrong.
What about the media and critical thinking?
Critical thinking is reading and understanding conflicting perspectives. There are people who tell me that we need to teach critical thinking so that everyone ends up thinking the right way. That is, in the same way. [She laughs]
"Critical thinking is reading and understanding conflicting perspectives"
Why do we procrastinate? Is it part of human nature?
It's an interesting question! We have problems with emotional experiments that lack further work. If you study procrastinators, you notice that their minds work in a very different way. But what they don’t tell us is that we can change that. There's evidence that we can change many things in our heads.
You also wrote the book Evil Genes about the neurological and social factors that contribute to chronic antisocial behaviour.
We can find these evil genes in politics, business, education... Everywhere a person can gain power. There are more and more sinister people. I know presidents who are really good people and have strategies for doing good things and I also know presidents who only think of themselves but don’t try to do things for others.
Good and bad leaders with their respective followers.
There are people who have a very strong desire to become a leader and will do whatever it takes to achieve it. Sometimes they really believe they are doing what's right and even if they lie they think it's okay.
"We can find these evil genes in politics, business, education... Everywhere a person can gain power"
Is education changing with new technology?
Well-made videos are great for learning - they are instructive and you can watch them as many times as you want. I have a Kenyan friend who liked to throw the javelin, learned online with different videos and became a world champion. Teachers think that tutorials or videos are their area but this is not the case. Face-to-face classes are full of distractions; it’s much easier to learn online. Teachers say that virtual classes lack the face-to-face aspect and interaction, but online you can have more and better interaction with people from all over the country or the world who have had very different experiences. Books have a low retention weight: how many people finish a textbook? Virtually no one. How many writers see their readers face to face? Everything works if the videos are quality. The new trends are virtual reality and artificial intelligence, but they are still expensive and there's little material or labs.