Chapter 5. Why your brain is like the most expensive car in the world

>>Chapter 6: What makes school hard or great: other people>>     <<Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway?<<

Why is learning so hard?

Hello, my little alien friend. You have tests coming up in Maths, geography and French? And you’re going to fail them all? Ok, today we’re going to talk about learning.

We know that school is supposed to be a privilege, a right and a sacred duty to protect our society from losing all our knowledge again, but why does working in a coal-mine sound more attractive than going to school most mornings?

Well, for one thing, you’ve never worked in a coal-mine, or you wouldn’t wish that, and secondly, sometimes pupils, parents and even teachers forget that studying is work: it’s hard, it takes effort, it’s tiring and it can be really, really boring.

Or, learning can the most fun and interesting thing in the world.

Why your brain is like a very expensive piece of machinery that you don’t know how to use

Let me try and make an analogy. Your brain is a bit like a Ferrari. A Ferrari is a fantastic machine, one of the fastest, most beautiful, and most expensive cars in the world. We are all born with something like a Ferrari in our heads: our brains.

Imagine if someone gave you a Ferrari worth two hundred and fifty thousand euros today. By the way a normal car costs about fifteen thousand euros so a Ferrari costs 16.6 times more than a normal car. You might be happy own such a valuable car, but what would you actually do with it? You don’t have a driving license. You probably don’t even have anywhere to park it, and you can’t just park it on the street: it’ll get stolen or vandalised. You don’t even have anywhere to drive it. You own this incredibly valuable, powerful machine, and until you can legally get a licence to drive it, it’s … useless. If you’re determined to keep it in one piece until you’re 18, it could even cost you a lot of money to keep it safe in a garage somewhere.

Unlike other cars, if you take care of a Ferrari, it becomes more valuable. The same is true of your brain.

Well, your brain is like a Ferrari: an awesome, powerful machine, which you don’t have a manual or driving licence for. Also, you won’t be considered a “qualified driver” until you’re at least eighteen. The qualifications you are supposed to get before you leave school are a bit like a driving license: they tell the world “I’ve got a brain and I know how to use it.” School is like a garage where you can keep your brain safe and in working order, and if you take good care of it, like a Ferrari, it will become more and more valuable, unlike normal cars which become less valuable every year. You can sell a well-kept old-model Ferrari, a vintage Ferrari, for millions and millions of euros.

But you have to take care of it for a long time …

The problem is, we must spend at least 15 years in this garage. 15 years with no guarantee that you’ll find yourself in a school with teachers and classmates who will help you take care of your brain.

It’s wonderful when you get a great teacher who can really explain things and get you excited about a subject, but you can’t count on having great teachers so the best thing you can do is learn to take care of your brain yourself.

Why school can be hard

Let’s talk about why school is hard. Schools here aren’t designed for kids, like you, whose parents work all day every day, all year round, and who don’t have time to help you and supervise you. Or for kids, like you, who’ve come from countries and planets where things are very different. And who, like you, have missed one or two years of school, because you had to learn Italian before you could study anything else. Kids like you often find it hard to keep up at school because you just haven’t learned the same things your Italian classmates have – knowledge of Italian and European languages, history and geography.

There are lots of reasons why you might find school hard, but what usually gets in the way of learning is not enough attention. Attention is your brain’s ability to notice, understand, categorise and organise things. Attention is like time and money: it’s something that you spend, there is never enough of it, and it runs out.

How does attention work?

It’s like, if attention were sweets, every day we wake up with one packet of attention, and we need to make it last all day. Some things make us eat our sweets really quickly, for example, problems with people, like our parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, classmates, make us want to eat the whole packet at once. Also, things like health problems, losing or breaking things, or anything that makes us worried or scared, makes us eat up that attention very fast. When attention runs out, almost everything feels boring, and it takes a super-human effort to do anything. You need plenty of attention for school, for studying and learning, so you’re in trouble if you hardly have any attention left by the time you get to school.

Things you have no attention for and things you have attention for

Let’s try an experiment. Imagine you can do one of two things for the next half hour. You can choose A) half an hour of video-games or B) half an hour of maths homework. Well, of course, you’d choose video-games. How does the idea of doing half an hour of maths homework make you feel? Like the life is being sucked out of you? And how about playing video games? Probably happy and energetic. You see, you have some attention tucked away for video-games, like a squirrel with secret stores of nuts.

You know how there are some things which make you feel like time is flying and you could do them forever? Like listening to music, watching movies, and chatting or playing games with friends,? It feels like some things give you energy and attention, the things that feel like a game, and other things take away your energy and attention, like listening to some teachers or doing homework.

It’s easier to find attention if it feels like playing a game

Well, the trick is to make school and schoolwork feel like a game. Everything that feels like a game involves some of these things:

  1. competitions and battles, winning and losing, moving to the next level and showing off your knowledge and skills
  2. Looking for and finding information, solving puzzles and mysteries, solving a problem alone or with other people
  3. experimenting, daring and risking
  4. pretending, imagining and discovering what happens next,
  5. calculating, evaluating and deciding

So, whatever you’re studying, if you’re doing at least one of these things, it’s a game. And when you find ways of adding more of the game things, you turn it into a more fun game.

Learning things is like doing a jigsaw puzzle

Speaking of games, learning all the different things you study at school – maths, language and literature, history, biology, a second language, geography, physics, philosophy and chemistry – is like slowly, slowly solving a giant jigsaw puzzle. A giant jigsaw puzzle with no picture to guide you. And the picture you’re making is not of kittens and puppies, but of things you’ve never seen before. Hard, but not impossible.

The good news is that your jigsaw puzzle might be less complete than other kids’ puzzles but all the pieces are there for you, you just need to catch up. And there’s plenty of time to catch up, once you’ve learned a few tricks and systems that can help.

How do you start solving a jigsaw puzzle? That’s right, you start lining up the edges and borders, and then you group pieces that look like they might go together and then start trying to fit the pieces together, one at a time. And that’s what you must do with all the information your teachers bombard you with. Remember that it can take a while for the details of the picture you’re building to come together and make sense.

Where do you start? Like with a jigsaw puzzle, start wherever the picture starts to come together. It can be a subject that interests you, something you find easy, or, at least, not as difficult as others. Most of us have a subject we’re good at – or less terrible at than others.

Different types of thinking for different types of game – and school subject

School has already done some of the job of sorting out all the things you need to learn into groups – the different subjects you study. And different subjects, like different types of game, need different types of thinking. Being good at reading and writing needs different thinking from being good at maths and physics, or at history, geography and philosophy, or at biology and chemistry, or at foreign languages, or at visual art and music. I think our brains are capable of all the ways of thinking we need to learn all the subjects, but we tend to prefer one or two ways of thinking which makes some subjects easier for us than others, and that’s where we should start.

All the different subjects we study are all part of the same big picture of the world we live in, how it works and how we live in it. And building up one part of the picture can help you start to make sense of the rest of it.

Making sense of world we live in is a long job, in fact, it never really ends. The good news is that the hardest part of doing a jigsaw, like learning new things, is starting it, and then it gets easier. The more bits you’ve put together, the easier it gets.

>>Chapter 6: What makes school hard or great: other people>>     

<<Chapter 4: What’s the point of school anyway?<<

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