Complexity Explorer Santa Few Institute

Lessons from Barbara Oakley's visit to SFI

10 May 2017

Dr. Barbara Oakley, a Professor of Engineering at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan; the Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University; and the co-instructor of the world's most popular MOOC, "Learning How to Learn", spent a week at the Santa Fe Institute recently.  She gave two insightful seminars, the first was full of useful tips on making fantastic MOOCs; the second seminar was part of SFI's Colloquium series and covered lessons from her Learning How to Learn MOOC.   

Gabrielle Beans, the Program Manager for Online Education, sat down and interviewed her for Complexity Explorer.  Watch the video below to hear a few tips and tricks to enhance your online learning experience.  

Abbreviated Interview with Barbara Oakley

Complex Systems can appear daunting to new learners.  Do you have any tips for students who want to get more comfortable with quantitative areas of study?

It is very doable.  What I like about the Santa Fe Institute's courses is that the beginning courses, the introductory courses take you gently upwards so that if you just work a little bit day by day, it's very doable.  When you're learning in Math and Science, you're creating new neural patterns, in exactly the same way that you change your brain and create mental patterns when you're learning how to perform a new dance step, or how to say some phrases in a foreign language, or pick up some chords on the guitar.  

A big key is a little bit of daily practice.  You don't want to wait until the weekend and then cram a week's worth of material on one day.  Practice a little bit each day - that's what's going to help you develop those new patterns that are going to give you the expertise that you want to have.  Tiny bits at a time, each day, that's the key.

Look up the Pomodoro technique - if you find yourself procrastinating, set a timer for 25 minutes and turn off anything that can bother you.  Then all you need to do is focus as intently as you can for twenty five minutes.  When you're done, give yourself a nice reward - listen to a song you like, move around a little bit.  Just doing these kinds of things can help you get a nice, slow start to learning.

A little bit of exercise when you're taking a break is the perfect thing to do.  It helps your brain to consolidate, rearrange and make sense of what you're trying to learn - it works beautifully.

Let's talk about your latest project.  You have a new MOOC and book out now called Mindshift.  It focuses more on how to improve your career with online learning - can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Mindshift is about how you can make deep seated changes in your life simply through learning.  Now, we have great new ways to learn.  You don't have to give everything up and stop and go to a university - you can find things online.  Mindshift also helps you to think about your career in a strategic way - what's the big picture, what's really going to happen in your career, how can you develop skills to enhance the skillset you already have so you can be more resilient when things are changing.  How do you develop a second skill? How do you even think about developing a side expertise? Should it be something involving something you're passionate about, or should it be work-related? The MOOC is meant to help you think about all of these kinds of things and also to discuss these matters with people all around the world who are grappling with these same kinds of issues.  It's a lot of fun to compare notes with someone from Singapore who's having these same issues.  It can help you think and prepare in your career more strategically so that your better off in the long run when it comes to the competition.

Your experience going from being a Russian translator to an engineer heavily influenced your decision to create these courses (Learning How to Learn, Mindshift) and write your many books.  Tell us a little bit about that personal career change and maybe share an anecdote?

I think one thing that people often forget is that when you shift careers from one area to another you always feel like it's scary, you feel far behind, everyone else has been working on this for years. What you tend to forget is that you rbing a lot of value from your past into your new career, just as I brought a lot of value from learning Russian - it really helped me when I was learning engineering.  Let's say you are a person who is in sports and you didn't quite make it in golf.  So you go into marketing.  Everyone else seems really far ahead.  Guess what? You have this background in sports that can really help your marketing work.  It's like that so very often. Thomas Kuhn was a very important historian and philosopher of science.  He found that people who were most creative and innovative, and were making paradigm shifts, were either really young people who had not yet been indoctrinated into the discipline, or were people who had changed careers.  It's these career changers who can look with a fresh perspective.  They ask these beginner's mind questions.  Often those are really important, good questions.  So if you are feeling uncomfortable, like an imposter, congratulations you are well set up to be successful.  It's that very feeling of discomfort that helps you listen with a beginner's mind and help you be successful.  The best thing is go ahead, give it a try.  The nice thing is that you have these great online courses so you can go at it a little bit at a time and feel comfortable with it, and that's a great way to go.

Watch the video from minute 12:30 to hear Barbara Oakley tell a story from her time working on a soviet trawler.  She recounts the time she got rid of a KGB agent with a squirt gun.

You can find Barbara's MOOCs at these links:

Learning How to Learn


You can find Barbara's books at the links below:

A Mind for Numbers


Pathological Altruism

Evil Genes

Cold Blooded Kindness

Hair of the Dog

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