“Outsmart Your Brain” doesn’t sound very smart to me.

I admit the title is somewhat of a hyperbole. I did think certain aspects of Daniel Willingham’s Outsmart Your Brain gave good advice, but the majority of it I found amusingly absurd. Upon doing some quick research on Willingham, I understand his specialty is cognitive psychology from kindergarten to 12th grade. But something about how he talks about learning and education makes me feel like someone who is detached from the real world, disassociated from the actual people and students he’s talking about and just seeing numbers and facts as they are without consideration of life.

This detachment I felt as a reader and a student. It wasn’t immediate and didn’t make itself known at first. The more I read, the more off I felt. There were a few significant quotes by Willingham that really struck me the wrong way.

In college you’ll often hear “three hours of preparation for each hour in class.” A typical college course load calls for 12.5 hours of class time per week, so that rule of thumb means around another 37 hours of preparations outside class (which breaks down to 5.5 hours a day), totaling about 50 hours of work per week total. So a lot, but nothing outrageous (p. 102).

Presenting this system wouldn’t have been an issue, had it not been for the fact that Willingham had described it as “nothing outrageous”. Seeing as he’s a college professor, and has been one for half of his life, it’s clear the bias he has toward it. It’s safe to assume that he believes in this workload amount, or at least doesn’t see the issue with it. Well, I did, to me, this was something outrageous, and I decided to see if I was insane to think this way. I applied this math to our own IB course structure, and the structure here at Brookes to see what the hours would look like according to this system. In short, one IB course at Brookes is roughly 4h per week of in-class time, 4h x 3 (the recommended amount of time spent studying per hour in a course) = 12 hours outside of school studying. This totals 16h per week.

Now that doesn’t sound too bad. But what David Willingham doesn’t seem to mention is the fact that college students often take more than one course at a time, and so do we here at Brookes. 16h per week x 6.5 (6 IB courses + TOK) = 104 hours dedicated only to school. There are 168 hours in a week, 168-104= 64 hours not dedicated to school. But wait, there’s more. Assuming (and hoping) the student gets the recommended 9 hours of sleep each night (9×7)=63, 64-63= we as students are left with exactly ONE HOUR to ourselves every week. These calculations don’t account for eating, taking care of hygiene, jobs, socializing, and taking breaks, which under this system, would all fall into that single hour. This also doesn’t even bring up any issues in terms of mental health and learning disabilities.

Yes, I admit that this was overkill and that it wasn’t the only piece of advice given in this text, but the fact that it was one at all is absurd to me. Yes, some of the other advice Willingham gave was useful, like “Speed reading is not a thing” (p. 101) and “think about your goal for reading before your start and connect the pieces of the reading” (p. 97). But, is it? A lot of what I read felt like common sense to me. Tips that you kinda already know but quite frankly don’t have the energy to apply, at least for me. This brings up an entirely other topic about the exhaustion from school and the current Mental Health crisis our new generations are facing.

I don’t speak for everyone but to me reading Outsmart Your Brain didn’t provide me with any insight for my studying other than to not highlight subjects I don’t know, which I don’t even do anyways since I don’t rely on textbooks to teach me everything, and go to a school which teachers support and advise me in my notetaking. And it’s not as if I’ll be personally needing this information in the future either, as my career path doesn’t lean into readings and is instead focused on practical physical learning. All David Willingham made me feel was mad, and all he made me reflect on was how teachers and professors shouldn’t worry about the note-taking techniques of their students, because most of the time the students don’t even want to be learning these topics. If they did, their notes would be extensive already, and they probably would’ve done preliminary research on the topic if they loved it so much. The majority of students who take bad notes don’t take bad notes because they don’t know how to take good notes, it’s because they don’t care to take good notes. All teachers should be worried about is whether students are passing their classes, and making sure the grade level average of their students is high, because in the end that is all that matters to institutions, and it’s the entire reason why teachers are being paid at all, whether you like it or not.