I have been writing about cognitive science and education for about six years now, and teachers have thrown a lot of questions at me. Many I did not feel comfortable answering-I felt that cognitive science didn’t have much to contribute. But for othersI felt that scientists did have some relevant knowledge that might apply to the classroom. When I heard such a question, I tucked it away.
After several years of saving questions, I collected nine that I thought were really central to teaching. The result was a book, Why Don’t Students Like School? This week I will post one entry each day that describes one question posed in the book and a highly abridged version of my answer.
The title-Why Don’t Students Like School? is not the question that I have been asked most often, but it is, to me, the most important. After I gave a talk at a conference, a ninth grade teacher asked me this question, obviously disappointed and frustrated. As she noted, almost everyone says that they like to learn new things; so why don’t students like school more?
It usually surprises people – and depresses teachers — when I tell them the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to keep you from having to think. In fact, the brain is actually not very good at thinking.
Your brain serves many purposes, and thinking is not the one it serves best. Your brain supports the ability to see and to move, for example, and these functions operate much more efficiently and reliably than your ability to think. It’s no accident that most of your brain’s real estate is devoted to these activities. Compared to your ability to see and move, thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain.
About now you’re probably asking yourself, “Well, if we’re so bad at thinking, how do we function at all? How do we find our way to work or spot a bargain at the grocery store? How does a teacher make the hundreds of decisions necessary to get through her day?” The answer is that when we can get away with it, we don’t think. We rely on memory, which is much more reliable than thinking. Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past. We think of “memory” as storing personal events and facts, but it also stores strategies to guide what we should do: where to turn when driving home, how to handle a minor dispute when monitoring recess, what to do when a pot on the stove starts to boil over. For the vast majority of decisions we make, we don’t stop to consider what we might do, reason about it, anticipate possible consequences, and so on. We just do what we always do.
Saying we’re not very good at thinking sounds grim for educators. But don’t despair.
Despite the fact that we’re not that good at it, we actually like to think. We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought. But because thinking is so hard, the conditions have to be right for this curiosity to thrive, and we quit thinking rather readily. Solving problems – which I define as cognitive work that succeeds – makes us feel good.
From a cognitive perspective, an important consideration for educators is whether or not a student consistently experiences the pleasurable rush of solving a problem. What can teachers do to ensure that each student gets that pleasure? I describe several practical applications in my book, but for now, I’ll focus on just one: view schoolwork as a series of answers. Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question. But it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you. When you plan a lesson, start with the information you want students to know by its end. As a next step, consider what the key question for that lesson might be and how you can frame that question so it will have the right level of difficulty to engage your students.
Lastly some practical advice: Finding the sweet spot of difficulty is not easy. Your experience in the classroom is your best guide-if it works, do it again; if it doesn’t, discard it. But don’t expect that you will really remember how well a lesson worked a year later. Whether a lesson goes brilliantly well or down in flames, it feels at the time that we’ll never forget what happened, but the ravages of memory can surprise us, so write it down. It’s worth making a habit of recording your success in gauging the level of difficulty in the problems you pose for your students.
Tomorrow: Why understanding is remembering in disguise.
Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2009) from which this post was adapted.