Learning How To Learn

Adeyemi Olusegun
Jan 6 · 5 min read

I want to reserve special thanks for Mr Franklin Anochiam, who was saddled with the responsibility of taking us through word processing but decided to take us through the path of self discovery by teaching us the concept of — How To Learn.

He started the class by introducing us to the book written by author Dr. Barbara Oakley titled “ A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)”. The major talking points revolved around the concepts of “Focused” and “Diffused” learning — using the pinball machine as an analogy.

Since the very beginning of the 21st century, neuroscientists have been making profound advances in understanding the two different types of networks that the brain switches between — highly attentive states and more relaxed default mode networks.[i] We’ll call the thinking processes related to these networks the focused mode and diffuse mode, respectively — these modes are highly important for learning. It seems you frequently switch back and forth between these two modes in your day-to-day activities. You’re in either one mode or the other — not consciously in both at the same time. The diffuse mode does seem to be able to work quietly in the background on something you are not actively focusing on. Sometimes you may also flicker for a rapid moment to diffuse mode thinking.

Focused-mode thinking is essential for studying math and science. It involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches. The focused mode is associated with the concentrating abilities of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead. Turn your attention to something and just like — the focused mode is on, like the tight, penetrating beam of a flashlight.

Diffuse-mode thinking is also essential for learning math and science. It is what allows us to suddenly gain a new insight on a problem we’ve been struggling with, and is associated with “big picture” perspectives. Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. Unlike the focused mode, the diffuse mode is not affiliated with any one area of the brain — you can think of it as being “diffused” throughout the brain.Diffuse-mode insights often flow out of preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode. (The diffuse mode must have clay to make bricks!)

The Focused Mode — A Tight Pinball Machine

To understand focused and diffuse mental processes, we’re going to play some pinball. (Metaphors are powerful tools for learning in math and science.) In the old game of pinball, you pull back on a spring-loaded plunger and it whacks a ball, which ends up bouncing randomly around the circular rubber bumpers.

Take a look at the following illustration. When you focus your attention on a problem, your mind pulls back the mental plunger and releases a thought. Boom — that thought takes off, bumping around like the pinball in the head on the left. This is the focused mode of thinking.

The diffuse approach on the right often involves a big-picture perspective. This thinking mode is useful when you are learning something new. As you can see, the diffuse mode doesn’t allow you to focus tightly and intently to solve a specific problem — but it can allow you to get closer to where that solution lies because you’re able to travel farther before running into another bumper.

Notice how the round bumpers are very close together in the focused mode. In contrast, the diffuse mode on The right has circular rubber further apart. (If you want to pursue the metaphor further, you can think of each bumper as a cluster of neurons).

Pomodoro Technique

Using Wikipedia as a research tool, Pomodoro means tomatoes in Italia - after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros.

There are six steps in the original technique:

1. Decide on the task to be done.
2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
3. Work on the task.
4. End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 2.
6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.

The stages of planning, tracking, recording, processing and visualizing are fundamental to the technique. In the planning phase, tasks are prioritized by recording them in a “To Do Today” list. This enables users to estimate the effort tasks require. As pomodoros are completed, they are recorded, adding to a sense of accomplishment and providing raw data for subsequent self-observation and improvement.

For the purposes of the technique, a pomodoro is the interval of time spent working.[1] After task completion, any time remaining in the Pomodoro is devoted to overlearning. Regular breaks are taken, aiding assimilation. A short (3–5 minutes) rest separates consecutive pomodoros. Four pomodoros form a set. A longer (15–30 minute) rest is taken between sets.

A goal of the technique is to reduce the impact of internal and external interruptions on focus and flow. A pomodoro is indivisible; when interrupted during a pomodoro, either the other activity must be recorded and postponed (inform — negotiate — schedule — call back) or the pomodoro must be abandoned.

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