Teaching children to learn: the tips for parents from Barbar

Teaching children to learn: the tips for parents from Barbar

From Alexa White

To draw attention, you may use different tools, that will make learning more interesting. For example, Wipebook - is a really helpful tool for thinkers, doers, and problem solvers. You may use it to work things out, s...

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As a child she feared mathematics as a deadly disease, so she chose to become a philologist. But at 26 she started with a high school algebra course and finally earned a Ph.D. in engineering at 59. Barbara Oakley, author of the most popular online course on Coursera, proves this with her example: people are not divided into humanities and technical people. If your child declares that maths is too difficult for him or her and, after all, you can successfully get by without technicalities, this article is definitely for you. Barbara Oakley and her husband Philip share tips for parents on how to overcome children's fear of difficult subjects and why coaching discipline is more important than seeking motivation.

Vaccinate your child against frustration

Barbara: I was a stubborn and opinionated child. I used to sit across from my chemistry teacher and mentally tell him: try to get any chemistry into my head - you won't succeed! Mathematics and science are hard. Children find it much easier and quicker to be stunned by something. Even adults go through periods of frustration when trying to understand something difficult in their studies. Children do the same, but they don't have the cognitive tools to cope with such a state - to restrain themselves from breaking the computer in anger or throwing the textbook against the wall.

So my advice is to read a book on brain function with your child so she knows how to cope with frustration while learning. The child needs to know that not understanding something is normal for all people. This acts as a vaccination: the vaccination prepares your body for when you encounter the virus so that your body knows how to react to illness healthily. If you teach your child how the brain works, then later on, when the child is desperate to understand something, will know how to react to it.

Philip: If you're desperate for a difficult task, it's frustration, which means pause - distract yourself, turn on dispersed thinking. You see, the process of learning is hard physical work, it needs effort, concentration, and energy. No wonder children find it difficult. Children don't know that frustration is a natural part of the learning process. And it doesn't mean that they are slow-witted or have inferior abilities. Learning is like lifting weights - an athlete trains little by little, taking breaks to allow the muscles to rest. The same should be done with the brain.

Barbara: And the thing is, if you start telling a child in a moment of frustration what is going on with the brain now, the child will not understand anything, because they are too upset at that moment! But if you give such a kind of "inoculation" in advance, the child will know what to do when confronted with a difficult task.

Teach your children to work using the "tomato" method

Philip: I became focused and interested in learning at the age of 26. Before that, I was a wild young man - not at all the kind of person others would want to hear an answer from. Everyone grows up at a different age. It's important to get children used to practicing the 'tomato method' from childhood: working in a focused, distraction-free way - without phones, sketches, or toys. It's a very useful skill for life to be able to work focused and then take a break.

To draw attention, you may use different tools, that will make learning more interesting. For example, Wipebook - is a really helpful tool for thinkers, doers, and problem solvers. You may use it to work things out, save to the cloud and wipe old sketches completely clean.  

Barbara: Scientists believe that a child is capable of concentrating for as many minutes as their age + 1: that is, a 9-year-old is quite capable of focusing for 10 minutes. This is an average, who at that age is capable of more, who is capable of less. Do I need to adjust the amount of time for the tomato method for children? It very much depends on the individual child. I know a teacher who practices this method with 10-year-olds in a class all the time, and they work great. Think of it this way - if your child can play a video game on their phone for an hour, they are perfectly capable of focused work on a task for 25 minutes.

Learn to say a firm "no" to your children

Barbara: The most important of parents is learning to say an unequivocal "no". In our family, this has always been Phil's responsibility. Whereas I'm more mild-mannered and tend to be permissive. But interestingly, when my daughters had real problems in life, they would go to their father because he knows how to handle the situation calmly and rationally.

I remember our youngest daughter came to me the evening before a business statistics exam and asked me to explain a whole bunch of material. I outlined the statistics, but I said no: I can't put all this knowledge into your head in one night. In the end, she got a '4'. At this time she realized that her parents couldn't get her through quickly because of what she had to go through on her own.

I once spoke to an experienced technical engineer and his wife - their son was applying to an Ivy League school - and she confessed that she had written an application form for her son and he was accepted. That's something I would never do. Help your children, but do it in moderation. In the States, many parents target their children to go to the best universities. But my story illustrates that it is possible not to graduate from Harvard and have a full house of Harvard students come to hear me lecture "How to Learn to Learn". Don't aim for an elite institution, but go your own way.

Train discipline, not motivation

Barbara: No neuroscientist in the world knows where our motivation comes from. We just don't have a button in our brain that is responsible for motivation and can be turned on. But it is possible to learn self-motivation, and this can be achieved through discipline. One of the most powerful motivators is to do things you don't like to do. It's very rewarding to make yourself do things you don't want to do. It helps you to realize one important thing: when you get the chance to do what you want and love, you won't miss the chance anymore.

Be very careful with the idea that today's children are different. This idea sounds so beautiful - it can justify a lot of problems. If you look to see if there is any serious research that modern children are incapable of concentrating for long periods, you won't find any. Parents 50 years ago complained about the same things that modern mums and dads do. Victor Hugo, legend has it, asked his servant to lock him in his study with a sheet of paper and pen to write his works, because he was so easily distracted by other things.

Are social media a strong temptation for children? Absolutely! Are they able to resist the temptation? Very often not. But the one thing neurobiologists know for sure about the child's brain is that it is very plastic. If we adults train them to work in focused mode and then take breaks, we will help them. Those brief moments when the child moderates himself from the temptation to pick up the phone are very useful. 

I don't envy modern parents. You have to be very vigilant about the amount of time a child is allowed to be on social media. I wouldn't give access to social media to children under the age of 10-11. 

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