Andrew Watson: Learning and the Brain

Andrew Watson visited 98th Street to teach us how to “study less and learn more.”

Mr. Watson was with us for three days; he spoke to parents Wednesday evening, Middle and Upper School students on Thursday, and spent several hours with the faculty on Friday as part of their professional development day.
Mr. Watson, a former high school teacher, spends his time studying ways in which the latest scientific research on memory, motivation, and attention can make learning easier and teaching more effective.   His talk to the parents and the students emphasized the importance of the “brain first, not book first” method.  When studying for a quiz, students should first try to retrieve the information from their memory (e.g. using flashcards), rather than re-read the book.  Next, Mr. Watson shared some compelling data on the importance of eight hours of consecutive sleep.  “Sleep is homework,” he told the boys.  Much to the surprise of the boys, listening to music while studying is detrimental to the effort.  “Human beings are terrible at doing two things at the same time.”  Mr. Watson pulled up a graph demonstrating that even glancing at text messages while studying will lower test scores by a significant amount.  
Mr. Watson spent his time with the faculty and staff discussing the science of working memory, the short-term memory that “selects, holds, reorganizes, and combines information from many sources.”  If academic information is to be stored in long-term memory, it must pass through working memory first.  Effective teachers need to understand the limitations of working memory and work within its constraints.  Mr. Watson said that one of the things that can hurt working memory is stress.  We need to reframe the concept of stress.  Struggle is normal when learning something new, just like falling when learning to ride a bike.  Stress can help us in these moments if we embrace it.

To watch the parent presentation, click here (the password is 1904).  If you would like to learn more about Mr. Watson’s work on the topics of memory, attention, and motivation, visit his blog, Learning and the Brain, or check out his latest book, The Goldilocks Map: A Classroom Teacher’s Quest to Evaluate ‘Brain-Based’ Teaching Advice.