Book Review

Book Review: How We Learn

How We Learn is a book that reads like a great NPR story, and I mean that in the best way possible. It takes you on a journey, first through your brain and then through the history of learning research, before landing on some practical steps you can take to improve your own learning in specific situations.

Don't let the promise of "history" and "research" lull you into thinking the book is a boring one - in fact, after reading the first 100 pages across the course of several days (squeezing in a handful of pages whenever possible), I was finally able to sit down and read the remaining 130 pages uninterrupted. Ironically, the large chunk of reading began with Chapter Six: "The Upside of Distraction." Well, there may indeed be upsides to distraction when it comes to learning, but I was glad to be able to sit down and finish the book anyway.

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens is the kind of title that prepares me to be a little skeptical. I came into the book thinking it was going to be positioned as some expert telling me why everything I thought I knew was wrong (or some kind of sensationalist thing like that). Certainly I have read plenty of insightful books that have shifted my perspective or broadened my view of a topic (Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Outliers come to mind, though I was less a fan of Blink), but for some reason I was expecting the book to wind up like a bad Netflix documentary - pushing buttons just because they exist without really saying anything of substance.

I am happy to report that I was wrong.

This book was written by a New York Times reporter who has been with the newspaper since 2004, and his expertise as a science journalist shines through in How We Learn. Carey doesn't claim to be a scientist, a researcher, or a leader in the field of learning, and as such he does not attempt to inject any sense of nose-in-the-air authority into his words. He writes as one who has done a lot of reading on the topic; he has talked with many people who have dedicated their lives to the field. While he doesn't introduce any new research, Carey also does not simply regurgitate the results of others' work. Rather, the author takes the findings of these researchers and uses them to look back on his own life before considering how they might apply more broadly to us as his readers. In addition, several of the researchers whose work Carey cites actually helped in the process of reviewing the book to make sure he was accurate in his reporting.

As I mentioned before, the book begins with a look at what we know about how the brain works (particularly as it pertains to learning). It's an interesting summary that lays the groundwork for some later stories, helping readers to understand them better. From "how the brain works," Carey progresses into a section I'd summarize as "how learning is affected by specific variables." This is the part where he not only shares some of the latest research, but also shows how scientists arrived at this point. It's a fascinating look at the history of learning theory, and Carey does a great job of mentioning larger historical trends (such as Freudian psychology) that affected scientists' decisions on where to go next. After reviewing the lands that learning research has traveled through, Carey brings us up to speed on the latest of "what we know now" and uses it to suggest several practical (I daresay actionable) ways that we can improve learning in our own lives.

The book wraps up with a brief Q&A section that serves as a recap of everything Carey just finished saying; it also serves as a quick reference guide for the major topics of the book. While How We Learn is a pretty easy read, it also contains a ton of information, so it's nice to have a refresher at the end of the book to consolidate everything that was included.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and came away wishing I owned a copy (mine was from the library) so that I could reference it down the road as I actively try to learn new skills and information. It's very practical in addition to being informative, and I may end up purchasing a copy of my own.

One feature I'd like to add to my book reviews (starting with this one) is a list of people I would recommend the book to. So, here we go - I would recommend How We Learn to:
  - Caitlin Metzger (my wife) because she's a great teacher and would be able to effectively leverage the book's material to help her piano and violin students continue to succeed.
  - Betty Metzger (my mom) because she is also a great teacher who would be able to bring the book's concepts into her K-6th music classroom.
  - Ben Eicher (my brother-in-law) who is heading into high school next year and could put the book's techniques to work as he continues his academic career.

How We Learn is an expertly-woven tale of how our brains work and how we can use them more efficiently. I'll give it three stars today and an additional two stars the day after tomorrow (to help the book commit its five-star rating to memory!)

Book Review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

As I mentioned on Saturday evening, I recently finished reading Col. Chris Hadfield's book An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. The full title is a mouthful but one of my favorite albums is called Give Us Rest; or: (a requiem mass in C [the happiest of all keys]) so maybe I'm just a sucker for creative works with overly complex titles.

I came into the book without any particular expectations; my decision to grab the book from its display on the library shelf was based primarily on name recognition. I remembered seeing videos of Col. Hadfield doing experiments on the International Space Station on YouTube, particularly some really cool demonstrations of how water behaves in microgravity. He also starred in the first music video recorded in space, a cover of David Bowie's Space Oddity which was recorded on the ISS during downtime. Given that picking the book up was a snap decision on my way to the checkout counter, I found the volume a thoroughly satisfying one.

If you open the book expecting some very specific type of account - a memoir, say, or a technical account of Hadfield's trips to space - you'll likely come away at least a little disappointed. It's not a linear autobiography, though it certainly tells the story of Col. Hadfield's life from childhood to retirement. Neither is it "how to become an astronaut," though Hadfield shares the journey he took to become one and many lessons he learned along the way. There aren't detailed accounts of every training and mission activity he took part in (and it quickly becomes apparent that such a work would be massive), and though Hadfield does include plenty of technical information in the course of his storytelling, the book remains quite accessible to non-astronaut readers.

What I mean to say, then, is that the book is not any one thing; it's part life story, part career memoir, part adventure, part mission recap, and part advice column. Hadfield manages to weave these many approaches together in a way that is both seamless and entertaining. Tales of tense moments leading up to a mission had me breathing shallowly; moments of triumph bestowed a soaring sense of joy and accomplishment, as if I had been the one who traveled to space three times. Portions of the book sharing life lessons did so in the context of Hadfield's life and career, but weren't so specific as to feel irrelevant. Indeed, as Col. Hadfield shared experiences and realizations that kept him on track and helped him to make the right decisions, I found myself considering thoughtfully how to apply these lessons to my own life.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is, generally speaking, celebratory in nature. It wraps up with Hadfield's retirement after completing his third trip to space, a highly successful 5-month stint aboard the International Space Station. The book bubbles with joy and doesn't dwell on negative experiences except to show how they taught an important lesson. Some may view this as a downside to the book, viewing it as self-congratulatory or unrealistically cheerful, but I think that the tone of the book is simply a reflection of the tone of Hadfield's life. Toward the end of the book, Col. Hadfield shares, "If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time." He explains that by counting each positive part of one's life as being equally important, it's easier to find meaning and motivation as you move toward a goal. In some ways, this outlook reminded me of a previous post I shared, called Finding Wins. Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the book so much - Col. Chris Hadfield seems like the kind of guy I could get along with pretty easily... though to be fair he also seems like the kind of guy anyone could get along with pretty easily. Throughout the book, I found myself identifying with him (except that he's vastly more experienced and has way cooler stories to share at parties). Overall, I found the book to be accessible, entertaining, and interesting. I give it 9 out of 9 planets (here's looking at you, Pluto).