Review: A Mind for Numbers, by Lara

One of the main reasons I started the homeschool journey was to give my children a fuller learning experience, to have them learn at their own pace and not be sucked into the cycle of memorizing facts, then spitting them out on a test – a cycle that had me, as a student, retaining maybe 50% of what is “learned” for more than an hour after the test. I had all these lofty ideas about how my child was going to learn stuff—not just take tests. She was going to be immersed in learning and be able to take her time when it mattered, not be rushed by some random schedule. We school year-round so that I can go over material as many times as needed. This worked well for us for a number of years; then, suddenly, it wasn’t working anymore. What changed?

Well, lots of things changed. I had younger children who needed more one-on-one momma time for THEIR turn in the learning experience, so the older child by necessity had to be more independent. She started high school, and I was thrust into the world of credit hours and a looming graduation schedule. Sure, it was four years away, but there really isn’t much time for dragging of feet and repeating the same lesson over and over again until every concept is solid. High school moves at a faster pace, and she needed the tools to learn things the first or second time around. Then there was the child herself: she dislikes math. She is good at math, although she doesn’t believe this. Math intimidates her. She would drag her feet and not do the homework. Math was taking three hours a day for both of us, since I had to sit on her to get it done. I hadn’t done this much hand-holding with her since the fourth grade! Just when I needed her to be more independent, she was sucking more of my time than ever before.

Clearly changes were needed in our school, but what? She had a good textbook, but extra practice was just making my day longer. She needed encouragement; she needed to know that she could do this math thing and be successful. So when I saw a book at my local library – A Mind for Numbers, How to Excel at Math and Science (Even if You Flunked Algebra) written by Barbara Oakley, PH.D – I picked it up. I was immediately charmed by a self-depreciating story of poor high school math and science scores. The author had a  brilliant mind for languages that didn’t “get” math but later in life was forced to learn math and science. Not only did she learn math and science, she excelled at them. This was the encouragement my artistic, story-writing, history-loving, math-hating child needed!

Little did I know this was a book about not only learning math and science but learning how to learn! Anything! This is a book about how the brain works and how it retains knowledge. Per the author, once you understand how learning occurs, you can change how you study to match how your brain learns. Barbara Oakley, PH.D., explains how the brain stores information and uses that information to make those “leaps” in logic that help us problem solve. This book isn’t about how to do math problems better. In fact I don’t think there is any math in this book, just the science of how to learn.

What if we could retrain ourselves by studying the way the brain learns, instead of fighting it? We all know that cramming isn’t the best way to learn, but do we know why that is ineffective? After reading this book you will.

What I found to be of particular interest about Oakley’s writing/teaching style is that while I was reading, she is teaching me how this learning method works. I found myself being led to follow her suggested steps in order to study her book! Her easy, personable writing style didn’t put me to sleep or make me feel like I was in over my head with the science. She uses “her” technique to help readers learn the technique. I use “her“ in quotation marks because this isn’t anything new in the world of science, but the writing style and teaching methods are her personal stamp that makes this doable for the average, super-busy, no-time-for-learning-another-thing, homeschool mom.

Whom do I recommend this book for? Anyone, of any age, that wants to improve how they learn.

While doing some research for this review, I discovered that the author, Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., teaches a course through Coursera called “Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects.” I am going right over there to sign up. Perhaps I will see you there!


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