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Education Bookcast

Nov 29, 2021

How the Brain Learns is one of the first books I bought about education, all the way back in summer of 2014. It sat on my shelf for seven years before I finally got round to reading it. Now, with the benefit of knowledge gained from so many years of investigation, it is much less impressive to me than it would have been when I started.

After introducing some basics of brain anatomy, the author starts to describe learning, covering a lot of ground that we've already seen in this podcast in a generally acceptably accurate way. As usual for books about learning with "brain" in the title, it feels as though this word is maintained largely for the purposes of hype, as references to brains in this book, as in others, do little to help us understand the nature of learning.

The book does have several important flaws, most striking of which is the author's apparent lack of understanding of the concept of working memory, perhaps the most important learning concept to grasp. The author seems to think that cramming for a test only keeps information in working memory and doesn't allow for transfer to long-term memory, which suggests that crammers have miraculous working memories that can hold far in excess of the pruported limit 2-7 items of information, and that they hold this information in there for days (presumably there is nothing they can divert their attention to in the meantime).

How the Brain Learns does contain a few interesting nuggets, and there are a number of ideas that it explains more or less correctly. This puts it way above its apparent cousin Brain-based Learning, put still far behind Why Don't Students Like School? and other books on this podcast for helping us understand how learning works. I do not recommend it, but I've seen worse.

Enjoy the episode.



53. Brain-based Learning by Eric Jensen - a similar, though considerably worse, book about learning and brains.

79. What learning is - about the modal model of memory (cognitive architecture: working memory and long-term memory), the most important thing I've learned in six and a half years of researching this stuff.

85. Why Don't Students Like School? by Dan Willingham - the classic cognitive science book for teachers.

80. The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters - a model very similar to the modal model of memory.