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Grasp

The Science Transforming How We Learn

By Sanjay Sarma, Luke Yoquinto
12-minute read
Audio available
Grasp by Sanjay Sarma, Luke Yoquinto

Grasp (2020) covers the development of modern education systems and the ways in which their current forms conflict with recent scientific insights into how the brain works. It describes a variety of experimental techniques being applied to improve education and discusses how they might become more broadly generalized.

  • Academics, teachers, school administrators 
  • Students
  • Anyone interested in improving their own ability to learn

Sanjay Sarma is the head of Open Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has spent years studying the science of learning as well as working as a professor of mechanical engineering. He is also the co-author of The Inversion Factor: How to Thrive in the IoT Economy

Luke Yoquinto is an MIT researcher and science writer.

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Grasp

The Science Transforming How We Learn

By Sanjay Sarma, Luke Yoquinto
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Grasp by Sanjay Sarma, Luke Yoquinto
Synopsis

Grasp (2020) covers the development of modern education systems and the ways in which their current forms conflict with recent scientific insights into how the brain works. It describes a variety of experimental techniques being applied to improve education and discusses how they might become more broadly generalized.

Key idea 1 of 7

Our schools aren’t always built for our brains – and we pay a heavy price.

Pretend you’re back at school. Where do you see yourself? Crammed into a desk beside a bunch of other students, staring at a teacher droning on in front of a blackboard covered with indecipherable scribbles? 

You wouldn’t be alone. It’s a classic image of how education works, and at this point in time, it’s pretty much universal. But in a lot of ways, this system doesn’t even come close to matching up with the latest science about how the brain works and how humans learn best. In fact, it often cuts directly against it.

The key message here is: Our schools aren’t always built for our brains – and we pay a heavy price. 

Over the past few decades, cognitive science has given us a lot of insights into how we can improve our schools. But before we dive into the details, it’s worth backing up and asking exactly what we mean by “education.” 

According to the author, education means imparting knowledge that is deep, contextualized, and useful. Put another way, it’s not just memorizing what the teacher says, it’s also understanding how that information connects to the world around you and how you can activate it when the time comes. 

Let’s take an example. Say you just took an engineering class and learned all about how pressure waves work in pipes – at least, in theory. Sure, you can cough up the information for the test and get a good grade. But what if you take a job on an oil rig? If you can’t actually stop the pipes from bursting – or fix them when they do – then what exactly was the point? 

Unfortunately, many schools neglect this bigger picture. Why? Well, one reason might be because the education system has been designed not just to teach but also to separate “worthy” students from the “unworthy.” The author calls the process “winnowing.” 

The logic of winnowing is everywhere. IQ scores, standardized tests, high-pressure exams – they’re all used as signals of innate ability, intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, despite loads of evidence they do nothing of the sort. Not only do these metrics fail to capture intelligence fully, but they also encourage us to learn inefficiently. They unfairly winnow out a lot of promising minds. 

We pay a big price for this. How many Einsteins have been lost to history because of geography, gender, class, or other factors the system couldn’t account for? If we’re going to solve the big problems like climate change, we’re going to need all the minds we can get. So we need to get education right. 

But first, we’re going to have to unlearn a couple of myths. 

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