Mastering math … or anything else.

Some insights on the science & practice of learning.


Interesting article buried in a weekend edition of the WSJ: “How a Polymath Mastered Math—and So Can You”

The subject polymath (a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning) is Prof. Barbara Oakley.

To make her long story short, she was a self-proclaimed horrible math student in high school, dove back into math in her mid-20s, and is now an engineering professor..

“Her progression from desultory student to respected scholar led her to a sideline in the study of learning itself.”

She is the author of ‘A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra)’ and ‘Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential’.


Here are a few snippets from the article …


On the benefits of rote and practice

“In learning math and science through K-12, American educators have long been held that practice and repetition will kill your creativity.

But if you don’t build your neural circuits with practice, it’ll all slip away. You can understand concepts out the wazoo, but your practical understanding will be shallow if you’re not practicing with it.”

Ms. Oakley notes that “many, if not most,” of her engineering colleagues “are from countries that have educational systems completely antithetical to the education system in the United States.”

In places like China and India, “practice and repetition and rote and memorization are really important parts of education … and there are also real benefits to Asian approaches—that it builds a solid foundation in the most difficult disciplines, math and science.”

In his book ’Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell says that top-performers practice 10,000 times hone their specific skills


Maybe you’ll understand it tomorrow

“There are two different networks in your brain.

One is [active] when you’re focusing, and the other is a much broader network.”

So, sometimes the way to solve a problem is to stop paying attention to it.

“It’s perfectly normal to look at something, . . . not understand it, and have to go away from it and let that other mode sort of cogitate in the background making connections, so that when you come back and look at it a second time, it will make sense.”

Some researchers refer to this process as “incubation”.


How to strengthen your mind as you age?

Some of the answers are what you’d expect. Physical exercise, meditation.

In one study, “reading a book for around 3½ hours a week was shown to extend the lifespan . . . by something like two to three years.”

Learning a foreign language “gives a workout to the very centers of the brain that are most affected by the aging process, so it’s super healthy.”

“The way you learn intensively for a language is very similar to learning well in math and science.”

Action videogames are incredibly helpful in keeping you sharp.”

They’ve been shown by research to make a big difference in your attentional centers.”

Videogames even improve eyesight … both acuity and peripheral vision.

“You can drive better: you’ll catch if some little animal is darting in from the side … and, if you’re working with these action videogames, you’ll be able to read the fine print on a medicine bottle.”



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One Response to “Mastering math … or anything else.”

  1. John Milnes Baker Says:

    I thought I had a bit of a block with math. I had to have at least a college freshman math course to my credit to get into a graduate architecture school program. But I kept putting off the math course until I was a senior at Middlebury College. I fortunately discovered a little paper back Penguin book by an Oxford professor named W.W. Sawyer: “Mathematician’s Delight.” Between the book and a pretty freshman named Jane Fraser I passed with a respectable grade and went on to Columbia’s School of Architecture. I then had to take virtually the same course again. I got straight As and everyone thought “Wow. Baker can draw but he’s also a wiz at math!” (Little did they know.) The book was indeed a delight – and I’m sure one can still find it on line. Enjoy ……

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