Muddy meets… Professor Robert Winston
Professor Robert Winston is one of the most recognisable scientists in the UK, known for his groundbreaking research into fertility treatment as well as his books and TV shows. He is currently touring the UK with his latest talk Improve Your Learning. Muddy limbers up her few remaining brain cells to interview the great man.
Your latest talk is about increasing the potential to learn. Why?
The brain is at its most able when we are young, but in my opinion we’re not taking primary school education seriously enough – if you don’t get it right by the time kids reach 9 or 10, it gets harder to learn. Many children don’t learn how to debate, they aren’t offered practical science at primary school (which is what excites them), they learn facts rather than learning how to learn. So that was my motivation, to explore how we learn and how to improve the way we do it though I promise the talk isn’t political at all, it’s practical and full of science, hopefully funny and definitely aimed at the whole family.
What’s the secret to being a brainiac then?
Music is a big one – you can literally change memory and patterns of learning. Research has shown that learning a musical instrument improves literacy, short term and long term memory, emotional development, dexterity and also happiness and it can also have a profound affect on those with autism. Repeating mental tasks has an effect – you can see this in the magnetic field activity around the brain. And of course exercise (even just walking once a week) enhances and starts new nerve cells.
What’s your advice to young people?
Firstly, learning to fail is really important. Failure is to be grasped and to be learnt from. The hundreds of research papers I’ve written have all been failures but that allowed me to develop the next improved paper.
Secondly, focus! Understand that once you get through GSCEs your A levels and beyond will open up a wonderful world of possibility.
And finally, understand that success is not about academic at all. This is also important for the so-called ‘pushy’ parents. The least academic of my three children is the one who has made the biggest mark in his field. It’s interesting to see that success is actually being about adjusted, happy, responsible, helping others, being aware. Those who have good relationships with other people succeed again and again and this idea of the individual great genius is wrong – most advances in human work are made by collaboration and cooperation.
What do you say to kids whose parents want them to take a certain path?
Ultimately it comes down to the basic relationship between parent and child. I watch my grandchildren and the way they are parented, and it’s wonderful – my own children are constantly talking to their kids, they never leave a question unanswered, they’re always having a dialogue. That way a child will be able to express opinions freely and be listened to.
What do you do to relax?
I do a lot of reading. At the moment I’m re-reading Thomas Hardy – somehow I never read Jude the Obscure in my youth so I’m half way through that and enjoying it. Also Anthony Beevor’s latest book on Battle for the Bridges: Arnhem. Beevor is an amazing literary historian, I have a lot of respect for the way he rights, it’s an extraordinary piece of research about the Allied airborne invasion of the Netherlands in 1944. It shows how arrogance is always very dangerous position to take.
I’m also going to go bright red now because it’s an awful thing to admit, but at the moment I spend a lot of time on the train, so I’m watching a lot of Game of Thrones – it’s a wonderful gothic tale! It’s amazingly well made, a lot of it’s puerile but it’s quite gripping you know.
Professor Robert Winston’s Improve Your Learning comes to The Wycombe Swan on Mon 11 June.