April 21, 2022

The Difficulty of Changing Minds With Barbara Oakley

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #81

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Barbara Oakley, author of Uncommon Sense Teaching: Practical Insights in Brain Science to Help Students Learn, Learn Like a Pro: Science-Based Tools to Become Better at Anything, Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens, and more. Oakley earned her Ph.D. in Systems Engineering at Oakland University and won Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year in 2018. And, was a former Army Captain.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Barbara sat down with Sam and discussed online and classroom learning, the difficulty of changing minds, and unequal education opportunities.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Oakley shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “It’s hard for people to change sometimes.”
  • “There are fundamentals that don’t change.”
  • “Be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”


Sam: Well, Barbara, Uncommon Sense Teaching, and I know you have a lot of other books that you have released over the years. What made you write this book? 

Barbara: Well, so I did this course with Terry Sejnowski, who’s a very prominent neuroscientist, called Learning How to Learn. We’ve had over 3 million students. It’s one of the most popular online courses in the world. And people kept writing to me and saying, okay, this is great for students, but what if you’re a teacher, how do you help? How do you help your students as a teacher so they can learn more effectively? 

And at first, I thought, well, I don’t really want to get into that area, but then the more I learned over the years, the more I began to realize, oh, well, actually there’s a lot from neuroscientists that can help us whether you’re in business and you’re trying to advise and help your company and your company’s workers to learn more effectively or your vocational training, whatever you’re trying to help onboard students with, there’s a lot that we know from neuroscience that can help you, as either an administrator or an instructor to more effectively and efficiently impart new information. 

Sam: The book is full of strategies, and I don’t think I can really share my copy with any of my friends or colleagues because it’s all marked up. But I’m interested to know, is there anyone strategy or tactic that you find is a fan favorite from teachers and as you’ve gone around and talked about the book? Is there any single tactic that was a game-changer for a teacher?

Barbara: Well, for students, the game-changer is the Pomodoro Technique, which is just putting aside all distractions, setting a timer for 25 minutes, working as effectively as you can for those 25 minutes, and then taking a five minute or so break. And that has been a game-changer for learners all over the place.

Now for teachers, the game-changer is retrieval practice, which I know is in Make It Stick. It’s a huge discussion, but we know now even more from neuroscience about why retrieval practice, which is just trying to remember something without looking at whatever that something is, so you’re not just reading a page, for example, you’re looking away from the page to see what the key ideas were or using flashcards to check whether something’s in your brain. And it turns out that every time you check like this, test yourself, that you’re actually strengthening the neural connections between the neurons, connected neurons in long-term memory is the be all and end all.

And each time you retrieve an idea, you’re actually strengthening things. So for example, I was just in San Francisco and they were giving an award to a rural school district in Delta, Colorado that is just doing phenomenally well with their students, and the reason is because they switched to retrieval practice, like asking students to come up with things themselves. And this includes even things like multiplication tables, which we’ve long been taught, “oh no, no, no. You never have to memorize those things. You can always just look it up,” but it turns out you can’t build the neural structure of understanding unless you have those facts readily available.

And in business terms, this relates to like, let’s say you’re learning to code. Well, you memorize those hotkeys so you have instant mental access. Sure, you can always look them up, but what’s the use? I mean, coders, or good coders, are good coders because they’ve got instant access in their mental Rolodex to these important, seemingly minor, but actually quite important ways of expediting their work.

Sam: On that point on retrieval practice, I mean, I think when you read your book and you look at the research, it just makes sense, but it’s still not widely adopted or it all find having conversations with folks who just don’t, like there’s like a neuro myth that they just don’t believe it. How do you respond to that? How do you talk through with someone to maybe change their point of view? Is there anything that’s worked most effectively for you? 

Barbara: Oh yeah. Imagery. So for example, I went out and spoke about four years ago to that Delta, Colorado school. And I remember, you know, when I brought up the phrase, multiplication tables, all the teachers, there were about 400 teachers in the room and they’re all the ones in the back, they started stomping, their feet and hooting and hollering because they thought I was going to say, ‘you don’t need to, no rote learning of multiplication tables is ever needed.’ They thought I was going to say that and they hear it so often from professional development trainers and so forth that it’s almost like this call and response.

The trainer will allude to something that will make them think, ‘ah, and I’m going to disparage retrieval practice, especially of something like the multiplication tables.’ And instead what I just said, as I paused as the hooting and hollering died down, and I said, ‘I am not here to tell you what you want to hear,’ because people want to hear it. It’s easier to not do retrieval practice and not insist on it in your students. I said, ‘I’m not here to tell you what you want to hear. I’m here to tell you what you need to hear,’ and you could have heard a pin drop. And I think that there is resistance to the idea because it’s harder and because they haven’t been told that that’s important by previous experts in the field who had a vested interest in doing things the way they’ve always been taught themselves to do things. And you know, it’s really hard. 

Let’s say you’re some expert that’s been out there preaching to the choir for the last couple of decades. You don’t want to suddenly say, ‘well, I’ve been wrong for 20 years and based on modern neuroscience, here are these new ideas.’ So there’s still a lot of this older set of ideas out there. And it’s hard for people to change sometimes. 

Sam: And we’ll see that with organizations who, maybe they invested in technology and infrastructure. Whether it’s learning platforms, a decade ago, to your point, as you read something like this, it challenges maybe some of the software and some of the teaching methods you have in place. And it’s tough, it costs money, it requires people to raise their hand and say that to your point I have to be willing to change.

When you look at technology, I know so much of the book also talks about online learning and now with COVID and online learning has changed even more, are there any trends that excite you about software technology that are adopting these printers?

Barbara: Oh, well, first I have to tell you about my favorite athlete of all time. His name is Julius Yego, and Julius is from Kenya. He always wanted to throw the javelin, but if you know anything about Kenya, you know that’s not done there. They are long-distance runners primarily. But Julius had his own ideas, but he was poor. He couldn’t go overseas to study. There weren’t any javelin throwing coaches in Kenya. So he started watching great instructors online. And 98% of the time, simply by watching these great instructors and going out and practicing on his own, he became the world champion in throwing the javelin. 

So sometimes I get a little, let’s just say, miffed at online. For a long time, there’s been this huge pushback that online learning is always inferior to learning face to face, which is simply not true. And COVID has muted some of the criticism. But at the same time, a lot of academicians are threatened by online learning.

And so you’ll hear from big professors who will sit and pontificate for half an hour with a picture of their book beside them about how bad online learning is. ‘I mean, it’s okay, but it’s not comparable to face-to-face,’ and they’re sitting there the whole half an hour. Just with their book beside them.

And you want to say, that’s bad online teaching. You’re exemplifying why people and why you think it’s bad, because anybody watching you is going to say, ‘well, this is bad instruction.’ And so of course you’re going to always think that it’s inferior. But the truth of the matter is that people will push the idea of, okay, you’ve got to have learners engaging with the materials and with each other, you really want engagement with one another. In some sense, that’s a cop-out.

It’s like, you should be having your students talking to one another on discussion forums and so forth. And if they’re not learning effectively, that’s why. Instead of sitting there taking a step back and going, ‘if I want my learners to engage, why don’t I make engaging videos? Why don’t I make my online presentations more than just some pictures sitting beside me for 10 minutes at a time?’

And what I see is exciting and really engaging online courses. And there they’re not all out there because universities and other institutions, they can be, you know. It’s a product, you want 40 hours on manufacturing processes, so you’re getting 40 boring hours on manufacturer. There’s no attention to quality as far as making it engaging. Very little, because you’re just pushing the product out the door, a number of hours, but gradually things are beginning to improve because there is competition in the online world where there really isn’t that much competition in a classroom.

Sam: Is it easier or is it harder to teach in the classroom, whether it’s to young people or at the college level? Is it easier or harder in your opinion? 

Barbara: I think it all depends on how you start. If you start online, you’ll think online’s easier. If you start face-to-face you’ll think face-to-face is easier.

But because mostly all teachers out there now have started face-to-face and it always makes me laugh when teachers will say, ‘you really know the material when you can transfer the material.’ And then when it comes to teaching, all they have to do is transfer what they know about teaching from face-to-face teaching to teaching it online. So if they really know how to teach, it should be a piece of cake. They can just transfer what they know. Right. Well, that tells you that transfer is not all it’s cracked up to be. 

online teaching to me is, I love it because you can put it together and plan it better, you know? And face-to-face, you’re still planning, but it’s kind of the difference between like, you go on a date for somebody, you go on a date, that’s like making an online course. You get it all ready. If you have a cold or you’re feeling bad that day, you don’t go, you get yourself looking as good as you can.

So online learning is like dating, in class is like marriage. What you see is what you get. You can’t take it back if you say something wrong. I actually like online learning or online teaching better in the sense that I can more carefully choreograph, so it really can reach the learner in a way that I think is most effective. 

Sam: The other thing I was thinking about as you were talking, and also on the online learning track is, in so many cities across America, there are workforce development centers that because of COVID had to close and they had to immediately shift from a classroom model to a how do we deliver this online model?

Many didn’t have the infrastructure ready for it, even though they should have. Not adopting online fundamentally discriminates against a certain corner of our communities who don’t have access to transportation to get down to the workforce center or transportation to get to the community college. So I also think there’s an element of, I was kind of getting that through some of your stuff around, you talk about kids who maybe don’t get access to quality education systems being at a disadvantage in a modern world. I think this is where a lot of adopting some of your principles can maybe potentially level the playing field if it’s done right.

Barbara: I think so. And I have to say, they’re not my principles, they are the principles that grow out of what neuroscientists, great neuroscientists, have discovered as well as cognitive psychologists about how the brain works and how we learn effectively. So I think just all through the history of science, there’s often a major pushback against doing something new and appropriate.

For example,washing hands before surgery. Well, all the surgeons were like, ‘how dare you insinuate that I’m a dirty person,’ and so they wouldn’t do it. And no matter what kind of evidence was shown, and even now. So you might think, ‘oh yeah, but that was a hundred or more years ago. So that doesn’t happen.’ Trust me, it happens now. 

For example, in my Alzheimer’s research, my father died of Alzheimer’s and I remember telling him, ‘researchers are working on it, within the next few years, they’re saying they’re right on the edge.’ Well, no, actually it turned out that virtually all of the major researchers, all the journal editors, the funding agencies, all were aligned in the idea that certain amyloid plaques were the cause of Alzheimer’s. Actually, they’re a symptom of Alzheimer’s. They’re not the cause. So that meant that we fell behind 30 years because everybody was blocking any other approach to figuring out the problem. 

So similarly in education, we know now how students learn effectively. I mean, neuroscience has got all this insight, but schools of education are not by and large not teaching it. And school boards are not accepting it, not promoting it. In fact, sort of like, there are major initiatives to turn directly away from what neuroscience has told us is important in learning effectively. But I think for business, the biggest and most important takeaway is that online classes and an online way of learning can beat out all those sort of like you send somebody to a two-week boot camp or something like that. Those are super expensive. They’re fun little gigs, but they actually don’t space out learning effectively, like good online learning can, and good online learning is much more cost-effective. So I think that that’s a really exciting and positive development for HR who is trying to keep the workforce up to the times and beyond.

Sam: On that front, the future of work, jobs are going to be changing at a rate, the tasks that makeup work are going to consistently change even at a faster and faster rate. You can make the argument that we gotta get better at being effective learners, all of us, whether we’re managers or participants or students or workers. 

Barbara: Oh, that’s so very true. And part of that is what we need to remember: are there are fundamentals that don’t change. If someone was trained as an engineer in the 1950s, you’d say, ‘oh, everything’s so different. It’s completely different now. Nothing they learned would be applicable. Oh, contraire. Those fundamental engineering, getting those ideas in mind, that you’ve got. You can far more easily transition than you can if you were someone who is trying to come at programming without an engineering background.

Sam: Do you think that’s very similar to the way some people say millennials learn differently or gen Z learns differently? I have a five-year-old daughter. Now people are saying gen alpha learns differently. I mean, is there anything to that? 

Barbara: Yeah, if you’re trying to make a lot of money as a consultant, then it’s completely different. And by the way, I’ve got a solution for you about this very different way of learning. But, the reality is everybody learns through retrieval practice. They like visual sorts of learning. It helps to teach people how to stay away from too much social media. You know, a modicum is good, but if you get addicted, then that’s a problem. So, come on. The brain has not really changed between gen Z and my brain. And they learn by making the same connections in long-term memory and retrieval practice will help with that.

Sam: Barbara, last question for you. Talking about the future of work, what’s your hope for the future of work? 

Barbara: Oh gosh. 

Sam: An easy question. 

Barbara: No, I wish it was easy to implement, but I really want to see the disadvantaged have access to the same quality education that those who are really advantaged can have because I worked and volunteered for five years in an inner urban school district. The kids were great and they could fully learn. Some of those kids never even had a homework problem corrected in their entire educational career. It’s a travesty, what is experienced by some students going through it. And there are so many jobs for those who are willing enough to feel uncomfortable during the training process, the remedial training process, which is what I had to go through when I was learning. I was terrible at math and science growing up. I mean, I literally flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school, math, and science. At age 26, I started with remedial high school algebra, and now I’m a distinguished professor of engineering.

So it tells you, be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Start low, start slow, keep going, be persistent, and you can be amazed at what you can do. 

Sam: Barbara, thank you for your time. 

Barbara: Thank you.

Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Coaching, Leadership, Basketball, Students, Enthusiasm, Relentless

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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