Book review: A mind for numbers, Barbara Oakley

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I bought this book having seen it on Emily Seeber’s Twitter feed and blog post. It seemed immediately relevant. As a chemistry teacher I often come across students who feel they cannot do the mathematical aspects of the course. The more they think this, the worse their aptitude for numerical questions seems to become; their lack of confidence sends them into downward spiral. To them the fear is real, they really do feel they can’t do numerical questions. I wanted to find out more about strategies I could use with such students and this book looked appealing.

The author is immediately credible, as someone who struggled with maths and science but who progressed to getting a degree in chemical engineering following a previous degree in languages. This isn’t a book for high minded academics looking at learning theories, it very much appeals to practitioners eg, teachers or guidance counsellors/form tutors and also students themselves.

The language of the book is accessible and engaging. There are references to original papers on the theories and techniques presented but these don’t distract from the text. Moreover the book practices what it preaches, it is organised into short chunks with tight focuses and uses a number of useful examples to illustrate points. It has reviews at the end of each chapter and a summary at the end.

Here are a few things I took away from this book….

1) the idea of the focused and diffuse modes of learning and their roles in problem solving. While I was reading the book I had one of my 2nd year undergraduate students request a meeting to go through a spectroscopy lab problem. We worked on the problem for 40 minutes, examining the data she had and discussing and evaluating the possibilities. By the end of the meeting we hadn’t solved the problem but we had made progress in determining what significant portions of the data were saying. We were both working in focused mode. I saw her in the cafe the day after and she said that on her walk home it had just popped into her head what the missing functional group of our puzzle was, a nitro group. This was her diffuse mode talking over and working on the problem in the background while she was doing something else. The period of focused work had helped to embed the information and her diffuse mode was able to solve the problem.

I need to introduce this to the boys I teach in school however I need to be careful about how I communicate it. I don’t want them to think that by not thinking about a problem the answer will just come to them, I need them to understand that the focused mode gives the diffuse mode the tools to work with.

I also want to look into the ‘hard start to easy’ technique for tackling assessments/exams which taps into this focused/diffuse thinking.

2) the pomodoro technique. This technique is about dealing with procrastination and the ‘zombies’ who tempt you to check your phone etc while studying. I know this is a big problem for all students (and lots of teachers and academics too). I have already put this into practice. I used a form period to practice this technique (but only for 10 minutes) and discussed the theory and why certain aspects were important. Some boys responded very well, others were visibly uncomfortable being parted from their tech for even 10 minutes. We resolved to work on fighting our zombies over the Easter holiday and before they left for the break I gave each of them a kitchen timer to practice with. I am happy to report that I had an email from a mum of one of the boys to say he was in his room with his timer ticking away and she had his phone. I am looking forward to catching up with them about how they got on when we return.

Overall I really recommend this as an introductory text that is very much practice based. There are techniques you can immediately take away and use with your classes and it is well worth the time spent reading it.

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