Professor Uri Triesman of the University of California, Berkeley was truly alarmed. 60% of African American students were failing calculus.  For them, this meant dropping out of university altogether.

He noticed that the university’s African American students tended to work on Maths alone, as a solitary endeavour. When they struggled, they were quick to conclude that they simply could not do Maths.

By contrast, the far more successful Chinese American students, tended to meet up after Maths classes and work through Maths problems together. When they struggled, they got practical help in their study groups. They also saw that others were having difficulties as well, so they did not feel alone in their struggle. They felt supported.  And so they persevered.

Professor Treisman decided to offer workshops to all students teaching them to work together in similar ways. He also gave the students positive messages about their potential.

The impact of these workshops was nothing short of “dramatic” notes Stanford University’s Professor Jo Boaler in her book Mathematical Mindsets. Failure rates for African American students dropped to zero within two years.  Moreover, African American students actually out performed Chinese American students who did not attend the workshops.

This finding is by no means unique. It is true that different people have different learning styles and learn in different ways.  But researchers have found that on average, we learn more effectively through discussion, practice and, interestingly, teaching others.  Lectures and solitary reading of themselves don’t always cut it.

This is well illustrated by the “learning pyramid” developed by the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, and which is embraced by many experienced educators:

Digital technologies and robotics are transforming our world of work and the skills we need to flourish at a very rapid pace.  And with the advent of the internet, we now have boundless opportunities to learn new skills.  For the first time in human history, anyone, anywhere in the world with an internet connection, can learn from the world’s best universities and instructors for free.  The highest quality education, previously the exclusive privilege of the elite, is now available to all.

It’s amazing!

But we must not be tempted to assume that a laptop or smartphone is all we need to learn.  As the learning pyramid suggests, we may also need opportunities for discussion, practical application and teaching others in order to learn effectively.

Sadly, too many leave our education system without ever truly learning how to learn.  Yet, clearly this has to be one of our most urgent tasks if we are to thrive in the fast and constantly changing workplace of today and tomorrow.

Additional insights into learning how to learn can be found at

The next article in the series Opportunity Knocks will take a look at pioneers in education and career transformation helping many to learn and thrive in the world of work.

Executive Director,
Future Think,
Penny Carballo-Smith