Smart Learning: Less Can Be More!

Children and adolescents now face increasing pressures to boost their academic skills and knowledge. This starts from an ever earlier age, and never seems to cease. Could there be a better – more enjoyable yet productive – way to do it?

Learning does not come in a single mold. Mastering grammar and syntax, accumulating background knowledge, building a larger conceptual framework, making mental connections, grasping the meaning of non-trivial texts, sparkling creative insight, exercising social judgment, etc. involve mostly what psychologist call “implicit” learning. It is a form of learning that does not require mental effort but is automatic and intuitive. In fact, implicit learning may be subverted by too much mental effort.

In my experience, one of the most effective forms of implicit learning involves reading books and articles that are 1) complex or sophisticated (in terms of grammar/syntax, plot, ideas…), yet 2) emotionally evocative for the reader (as opposed to schematic summaries and bullet points or tables). Such “deep reading” helps best integrate the human brain so we can make better sense of what we read (and the larger world), relate adequately to others. In the process, we can also become better writers.

Implicit learning, however, can be inhibited by sustained activation of the “executive brain” (responsible for working memory, cognitive control, analytical thinking, problem solving, planning, etc. – and also for attentional control and switching of attention). Implicit learning also suffers under conditions of chronic stress, anxiety, prolonged immobility, sleep deprivation, unhealthy eating, etc.

For better or worse, executive function and intuitive attunement tend to suppress each other in the brain – so when one goes up, the other goes down. For this reason, studying requiring intense concentration is best done like interval training (intense exertion alternating with downtime), one task at a time. Attention should also be periodically disengaged from outside stimuli.

Contrary to what we are told, beyond some point drill may not help much. To the extent that it is needed, the best strategy is to alternate topics/subjects in brief study sessions. The surest way to remember something is to test oneself repeatedly, or teach it to someone else.

In any case, it is essential to set aside time for deep reading, limit screen time, take regular breaks (to relax, do some light physical exercise, stretching, or slow breathing, take a walk, daydream), get enough sleep (including brief naps), eat healthily, etc.

Prolonged sitting and staring at screens may be particularly counterproductive. The executive brain needs downtime – so using every free minute to view moving digital images may sabotage both implicit and explicit learning. It sounds like it is too good to be true – but for some of the most essential forms of learning less can, indeed, be more.

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