A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science

A Mind for Numbers
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A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley provides an array of techniques and strategies for learning math and science, although the techniques can be applied to other subjects. The book provides diverse methods and informative applications to help readers construct mechanisms that lead to successful learning – these mechanisms can be applied to any subject or concept not only math and science. The key quality of this book is it doesn’t provide an “one size fits all” approach to learning but rather recognizes the diverse needs of learners, and therefore provides the reader with a myriad of strategies. Also, the test preparation checklist (p.239) and ten rules of good studying (p.257) are great tools for students and teachers. I will summarize the main points from the book, and points that I found important.

  • Oakley provides two main modes of thinking, focused and diffused. She illustrates the importance of each mode for learning and problem solving. Oakley suggests that readers learn how to use the different modes and when and how to shift between the two modes  of thinking.
    • Focus mode – learner’s attention is fixated on the concept (activates the pre-frontal cortex).
    • Diffuse mode – learner reflects on the concepts or takes a break from learning. When you take a break from learning, you unconsciously switch to the diffuse mode (diffuse thinking is widespread throughout the brain).
  • Focused mode is concerned with analyzing and interpreting whereas the diffused mode is concerned with the ‘bigger picture’. Oakley attests that learning occurs when you shift between the two modes of thinking.
  • To learn new ideas, we must use focused thinking initially then switch to diffuse thinking.
  • Oakley claims that major discoveries and innovations happened during the diffused mode of thinking.
  • The two crucial memory systems are working memory and long-term memory. Working memory pertains to the material your are directly processing (Oakley suggests processing four ideas at a time). Long-term memory is the hard-drive of the brain. It holds large amounts of information that is accessible.
  • It’s important to connect new concepts between the working memory and long-term memory; it builds multiple and new neural connections. This is critical for creativity and problem solving.
  • Another strategy Oakley suggests to improve learning is recall new knowledge to get it imprinted in your long-term memory.
  • Oakley compares the process of chucking and time-on-task. She reveals that creating connections with information is more effective than rereading, over learning, and rote memorization. Therefore, learning and reading must be active rather than passive. In addition, she asserts that learning strategies of pausing and reflecting are more effective than cramming and stressful learning.
  • Three steps to chuck material are (1) simply focus on the information you want to chuck, (2) understand basic material you want to chuck, and (3) gain context to see how and when to chuck.
  • Visuospatial memory is important to learning. The learner should create analogies, visual images and narratives to cultivate the visuospatial memory.
  • A technique Oakley suggests to use is the memory palace technique. To create a memory palace, the learner should contextualize and integrate concepts into familiar memories. This will strengthen their visuospatial memory.
  • Two strategies to gain deeper meaning and understanding hidden meaning are (1) simplifying and personifying the object of study and (2) contextual transferring new concepts to previously learned concepts.

At the end of each chapter, Oakley provides the reader with question to deepen their learning (the questions also serve to apply the techniques she’s teaching in the book). I will provide a few that I found informative.

  • Describe an image you could use to help you remember an important equation.
  • Pick any listing of four or more key ideas or concepts from any of your classes. Describe how you would encode those ideas as memorable images and tell where you would deposit them in your memory palace.
  • Explain the memory palace technique in a way that your grandmother could understand.
  • Take a piece of paper and doodle to create a visual or verbal metaphor for a concept you are trying to understand.
  • Write a paragraph that describes how some concepts you are studying could be visualized in a play.

A Mind for Numbers is a great read for educators and students. Oakley has provided me with numerous techniques I will implement in the classroom. Great book!

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