How Can We Get Students to Think Like Experts?

by Dan Willingham
March 26th, 2009

“How can we expect to train the next generation of scientists if we are not training them to do what scientists actually do?”  This sounds sensible, even insightful,  but students are not cognitively capable of doing what scientists (or historians, writers, mathematicians, etc.) do.   It’s not just that students know less than experts.  As I’ll describe, what experts know is organized differently in their memory.

Even the greatest scientists do not think like experts when they start out. They think like novices. It’s not possible to think like a scientist or a historian without a great deal of training. Does this mean we shouldn’t ask students to write a poem or conduct a scientific experiment?  Of course not. (Some great examples and ideas for history can be found at the National History Education Clearninghouse). But we should understand the difference between the thought processes of experts and novices. 

Accomplished mathematicians, scientists, and historians have worked in their field for years, and the knowledge and experience they have accumulated enables them to think in ways that are not open to the rest of us. Thus, trying to get your students to think like them is not a realistic goal. “Well, sure,” you might be thinking. ” I never really expected that my students are going to win the Nobel Prize! I just want them to understand some science.” That’s a worthy goal, but it is very different than the goal of students thinking like experts.

Real scientists are experts. They have worked at science for forty hours (or more) each week for years. Those years of practice make a qualitative–not quantitative–difference in the way they think compared to how even a well-informed amateur thinks.  It will surely not surprise you to learn that experts have lots of background knowledge in their area of expertise. But the expert mind has another edge over the rest of us. The information in long-term memory is organized differently than the information in working memory.  We can generalize by saying that experts think abstractly.  When confronted with a classroom management problem, for example, novice teachers typically jump right into trying to solve the problem, but experts first seek to define the problem, gathering more information if necessary. Thus expert teachers have knowledge of different types of classroom management problem. Not surprisingly, expert teachers more often solve these problems in ways that address root causes and not just the behavioral incident. For example, an expert is more likely than a novice to make a permanent change in seating assignments.

Seeing things abstractly enables experts to home in on important details among a flood of information, to produce solutions that are always sensible and consistent (even if they are not always right), and to show some transfer of their knowledge to related fields. In addition, many of the routine tasks that experts perform have become automatic through practice.

Sounds great. How can we teach students to do that? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not exactly cheering. The only path to expertise, as far as anyone knows, is practice.  One other interesting factor:  Great scientists are almost always workaholics. They have incredible persistence, and their threshold for mental exhaustion is very high. 

So if we can’t get students to think like experts what’s a reasonable goal?  Drawing a distinction between knowledge understanding and knowledge creation may help. Experts create. For example, scientists create and test theories of natural phenomena, historians create narrative interpretations of historical events, and mathematicians create proofs and descriptions of complex patterns. Experts not only understand their field, they also add new knowledge to it.  A more modest and realistic goal for students is knowledge comprehension. Student may not be able to develop their own scientific theory, but they can develop a deep understanding of existing theory.  A student may not be able to write a new narrative of historical fact, but she can follow and understand a narrative that someone else has written.

Tomorrow: How can I help slow learners?

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. 

26 Comments »

  1. This is my favorite chapter of the book so far! I have been enjoying the whole book, but this one puts into perspective some of my own conflicting thoughts on the matter.

    It makes perfect sense to me that novices cannot think like experts, but that they can learn a lot by observing how experts think. Children do not become poets when the teacher tells them to “think like poets,” but there is nothing wrong with attempting a poem (for fun and experience), and they can learn much from reading poetry. Likewise with music, science, history.

    In high school I started to understand what a historian does, and I was enraptured with it. Unfortunately I did not have the tools to do the same myself. I wanted to be a historian but did not do well on history tests. People told me the tests weren’t important; my history teacher (wise person) told me differently. She said that in order to be a historian I needed a grasp of the facts. Others said I could always look up the facts; I knew this was not true.

    Why is it not true? Like Dr. House (I haven’t watched the program but look forward to doing so), historians are aware of what they know and don’t know. Thus they know which questions to pose. A novice in history does not know to distinguish sufficient from insufficient knowledge or evidence. Thus the questions he or she poses may be haphazard and lead to many dead ends, foregone conclusions, or hazy hypotheses.

    In one of the silly Schools Attuned trainings I attended a couple years ago, we were given a number of hypothetical student profiles to “diagnose.” One was a student who supposedly knew all the facts but could not interpret them. We were supposed to conclude that she had some difficulty with higher-order thinking (I forget the exact wording that was encouraged).

    I found this conclusion a bit hasty. Reading over the profile, I saw evidence that she was indeed interpreting and organizing the facts. Actually any presentation of the facts will involve some sort of organization, which is a kind of interpretation. I did not see a lack of “higher-order” thinking. I saw instead a fascination with detail, which is not a weakness in my view.

    It is great to introduce children to the sorts of questions that scientists, writers, musicians ask. It is folly to expect them to tackle such questions themselves or to assume that there’s something wrong with questions of a more basic sort.

    Many more thoughts, but the rush of the day begins…

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 26, 2009 @ 7:59 am

  2. I’m not sold on your claim that “A student may not be able to write a new narrative of historical fact, but she can follow and understand a narrative that someone else has written.”

    Give a student a set of primary and secondary sources, and why couldn’t they practice weaving them into a narrative? If your key word is “new,” I would claim that the practice of writing even “old” narratives from scratch can be a valuable learning experience – especially valuable for being less boring than simply learning facts.

    What am I missing?

    Comment by Clay Burell — March 26, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  3. I could use more information on the important distinction between knowledge understanding and knowledge creation. Please accept my apologies if you address this distinction more thoroughly in the book, which has yet to arrive in my mailbox.

    At the high school level at least, don’t we set the bar a bit low if we expect students merely to understand a narrative someone else has written? Doesn’t the work of high school students whose papers appear in the Concord Review, for example, move from understanding to creation?

    I’ve taught literature to both high school and college students. I have always been frustrated by high school student papers that do little more than faithfully summarize the context of a literary piece, its plot (or main thrust), and major interpretations posed by others. At one level, at least, such papers’ authors seem to understand a given piece and what others have written about it, but they still haven’t produced a particularly compelling piece of work.

    The most successful high school papers did, in fact, create something new. Students who write such papers need to master the subject matter, of course. Without a very strong fund of knowledge, they cannot interpret material, make new connections, marshal evidence for their argument, construct a viable narrative, etc. Google cannot compensate for ignorance.

    I haven’t read the sample student paper Diana refers to, so I cannot make any judgment about its quality. Still, I can imagine student papers that demonstrate fascination with detail but still fail to develop meaningful arguments–I’ve encountered such papers fairly often. If, as Diana suggests, the paper’s author interprets and organizes facts effectively, then does the paper cross the boundary between “understanding” and “creation”?

    Of course, few of even the best high school papers actually make a substantial contribution to any field of inquiry. (Is an original contribution to a field of inquiry the criterion for creation?) This fact should not, however, minimize the accomplishments of students who make valid discoveries that are quite new to them.

    Comment by Claus — March 26, 2009 @ 11:39 am

  4. Diana, I agree with what you’ve written here. (And I’ve written more on Schools Attuned, but this isn’t the place to get into that.) Claus, you raise a good point. I am sure you’re right that, towards the end of high school, some students really have reached this level of achievement; they are integrating material at a very high level of thought and are truly creating something new. It’s rare–I feel that I see it only rarely at the University where I teach–but your point is well taken. Students who reach that level of competence should, of course, be encouraged to extend their capabilities. I was not thoughtful enough about that in this post, and I don’t think that I did a better job in the book, frankly. So I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 26, 2009 @ 1:13 pm

  5. Thank you for your very thoughtful response to my question, Dan. I eagerly await the arrival of your book!

    Your comments raise another question. Is it possible that only few students achieve the kind of competence you describe because we do not encourage enough of them to cross the boundary between understanding and creation (as you define the terms)? Of course, students cannot become creators without strong mastery content knowledge.

    Yet my own experience teaching in a formerly communist country some years ago awakened me to the danger of assuming that students cannot move beyond understanding of someone else’s narrative. Many students I encountered could faithfully repeat–or even reconstruct–what I told them, but relatively few made connections to other bodies of knowledge. The system that had formed them did not encourage students to question or even extend the narratives offered by teachers or books. While it was refreshing to teach students who really did possess essential content knowledge, I was often disappointed by their reluctance to venture beyond repetition of what others had already said.

    Certainly, students can develop expertise over time only through intense and persistent engagement with academic content. But–to borrow a shopworn phrase–should we worry about “the soft bigotry of low expectations?” If we don’t expect students to cross the boundary from understanding to creation, do we preordain the outcome?

    Apologies, again, if I’m distorting your terms.

    Comment by Claus — March 26, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Clay, sorry I missed your post the first time around.
    “Give a student a set of primary and secondary sources, and why couldn’t they practice weaving them into a narrative? ” They could, but I wouldn’t expect that it would be all that good, and may not be the best use of students’ time. By analogy, give kids some bunson burners and test tubes, and why can’t they conduct a chemistry experiment? They can, but not much is going to happen because they have neither the factual knowledge nor the thinking skills to know what to do. That’s why I suggest that, to understand how historians think about history or to understand how chemists think about chemistry, it might be better to plan lessons that highlight those features and explicate them for students, rather than to hope that students will be able to do it on their own. Thus, I don’t see the alternatives as “write a narrative” or “learn facts.” Students can also learn (through a variety of methods, not just didactic) what a historical narrative is; how the facts are weighed, evaluated, compared, validated, etc., and constructed into a narrative.
    A few caveats to this:
    1) As Diana points out, I would hope that this doesn’t mean that students will never be asked to write a poem or design an experiment. Those activities can be fun, motivaitonal and exciting. But if I’m right and those are the main benefits then a teacher might think differently about how often and when during the school year these take place.
    2) As Claus points out, some students are ready to create, and they certainly should be given the chance to do so.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 26, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  7. I, too, am really enjoying this series of posts. How often do you get to read a book, accompanied by ongoing commentary from its author, and chew on some of the ideas? Most cool.

    I’m thinking here about Malcolm Gladwell’s recent “10,000 hours” claim–that true mastery (or understanding to a degree that would permit knowledge creation?) of anything takes a significant investment of time. Even a music teacher (clearing throat) can do the math: If one practiced, studied or interacted with something four hours a day, every day, with no days off, it would take nearly seven years to achieve that fully accomplished status. If you were a typical K-12 student, working 10 hours/week on one disciplinary passion, year-round, it would take a little over 19 years.

    One more: if it takes 10,000 hours to learn to be a great teacher–at 40 hours a week, 42 weeks per year, it would take nearly six years to fully master the practice of teaching. If, of course, the novice was focused on improvement and paying attention. I think your example (changing the seating chart) was backwards. It’s novice teachers who try to feng shui their classrooms into submission by re-seating troublesome kids; veterans do look for root causes of behavior, and realize that putting someone in a different spot doesn’t alter their character or motivations. You have to work a little harder than the seating chart to make permanent classroom management gains.

    I agree with the distinction Claus makes between individual knowledge discovery– when a person uncovers a connection or principle understood by some others in the field, but new to them– and contributions to the accepted, vetted body of disciplinary knowledge. My middle school band students wrote original music as an assignment– none of them had any brilliant compositional technique, but all of them created new music. I would also suggest that many teachers at the university level are suspicious of original thinking when it comes from a student (that’s why they call them profess-ors). They’re not sure what they’re evaluating; it’s easy to compare work to well-developed rubrics and ideas. Completely new knowledge, on the other hand, can be dangerous…

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 26, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  8. Have you come across the notion of “interactional expertise,” the subject of a book by Harry Collins and Robert Evans called “Rethinking Expertise”? See http://www.amazon.com/Rethinking-Expertise-Harry-Collins/dp/0226113604 and http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/contactsandpeople/harrycollins/expertise-project/expertisepublications.html#rethinking

    Here’s a good interview: http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/an-interview-with-harry-collins

    And here’s a Nature article on how Collins fooled some gravitational physicists into thinking he was one of them: http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/contactsandpeople/harrycollins/expertise-project/Nature-article.pdf

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 26, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

  9. Dan,

    By defining the goal as getting students to act as “experts,” you give yourself an easy argument, but I don’t think it addresses what people are talking about when they say that they want students to “think like scientists” or “think like a historian.” I think that when teachers say this what they mean is that their disciplines do not simply represent a body of facts.

    The difference between a scientist and a historian isn’t just that the scientist knows lots of stuff about science and a historian knows lots of stuff about history. However, it is quite easy and common to construct science and history curricula that would make it seem like that was the case — like they’re both just bodies of knowledge about different subjects, not disciplines with their own modes of inquiry, methods of proof, etc.

    Like many of the posts on this site, I’m also puzzled about the oppositional angle of the piece. I don’t understand why to choose to attack the idea of “thinking like a scientist.” It undermines the intellectual rigor of the entire academic discipline, for what end?

    I take and angle like this: “What does it mean to ‘think like a scientist’ or ‘think like a historian’? First, you have to know enough about the world to ask a meaningful question about it. Second, if you are a historian or scientist, the next thing you do is research. A lot of it. And if you’re a historian, that’s 95% of what you do. If you’re a scientist, eventually you move on to the rest of the scientific method. One shortcoming of how these “thinking skills” are implemented in schools is that the model becomes ‘identify problem (with minimal knowledge of the domain) > generate unique creative solution.’ This isn’t how a scientist thinks or works.”

    Comment by Tom Hoffman — March 26, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

  10. “Give a student a set of primary and secondary sources, and why couldn’t they practice weaving them into a narrative?”

    Dan, I think you interpret Clay’s question (above) to mean that schools should simply supply students with lists of sources and expect them to work wonders without the benefit of prior content knowledge. I understand it differently. A well-structured course of study should help students build a substantial foundation of content knowledge while giving them opportunities to draw connections, juxtapose vital facts, and weave them into arguments that are new, at least to the students themselves. (I believe Nancy makes a similar point.) It is certainly the job of educators to ensure that the “new” arguments students create are valid, compelling and well-supported by evidence.

    Of course, assignments should become more challenging and ambitious as students progress through high school, and students’ opportunities to “create” should multiply as they approach graduation.

    Again, the Concord Review makes a strong case for this kind of work. In 2002, Will Fitzhugh published a study claiming that U.S. high school student had very few opportunities to write the kind of substantial research papers the Concord Review features. The study’s authors argued that many, many more students should have the opportunity to write such papers. I’m inclined to agree.

    I suspect we might be arguing over semantics rather than substance–so my apologies if that’s the case.

    Comment by Claus — March 26, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

  11. Tom,

    I can’t speak for Dan, but I think an “oppositional” tone on this issue is appropriate because few people GET IT that we’re neglecting to provide the prerequisites for expert thinking, i.e. facts ingrained in long-term memory. To give an example of how we’re foolishly neglecting the groundwork: American schools are obsessed about having kids write. In my middle school, kids write one persuasive essay or short story or response-to-literature after another. Are they much good? No. Do they get much better with this endless reiteration? I don’t think so. Why not? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that a. kids don’t have a whole lot of knowledge to draw on to enrich their persuasive essays and other writings, and b. that kids haven’t been exposed to lots and lots of models of great essays, short stories, responses-to-literature, so how the heck are they supposed to CREATE a worthy piece of work? They lack the mental templates that form after reading lots of great writing. Personally, I know my writing improved a good deal (oh yeah, it used to be worse!) after reading sharp articles in the New Republic for years in my early twenties. We’re putting the cart before the horse, wasting millions of hours of kids’ and teachers’ time (oh the hours spent grading those things!) all because of this misguided, though understandable, urge to have kids start apeing the experts. Instead of having kids write incessantly, we’d do better to spend time reading great literature and essays with them, and doing a robust job of teaching the other content areas so that they might someday be able to write a persuasive essay about something other than the school dress-code! We need to start thinking of k-12 schooling as a time of planting seeds, fertilizing and cultivating, not a time of fruition and harvesting.

    Comment by Ben F — March 27, 2009 @ 12:03 am

  12. Claus—you raise the interesting issue of the interaction of culture and schooling. So here I’m indulging in rank speculation—if there are relevant data, I don’t know about them. In the last few years there have been plenty of anecdotes about Chinese and Indian education officials being concerned that their students (especially in math and science) do not show much creativity. The speculation is that there is a cultural factor at work here. American culture values individual ideas, and a certain irreverent, questioning attitude toward accepted knowledge. Indian and Chinese culture do not include those ideas, the speculation runs. So it may be that, irrespective of what schools do, Americans are acculturated to “think outside the box” more often. I think this view is in line with the point you were making. Getting back to your question, my sense is that American students don’t feel inhibited in coming up with their own ideas, interpretations, etc. If anything, I think that they might err a bit in the other direction.

    Nancy: the changing the seating chart example actually wasn’t one that I came up with. That’s an actual finding that has been observed. (I can dig up the ref if you’re interested.) Even if that example were an idiosyncrasy of that one study, the underlying idea seems to make a lot of sense—that experienced teachers have a better sense of the underlying structure of classroom behavioral problems than novice teachers do. Is there value in discovering new knowledge—new to the student, but not “new” in the absolute sense? Sure. But in most disciplines what’s discovered is not only not new, it’s full of errors. Since you brought up university teaching (hurrah! something I know about) I can tell you that psychology students seldom reinvent the wheel. They invent a trapezoidal wheel. As Claus cautions, not always.

    Stuart—thanks for the cites to what look like interesting stuff. Will check when I stop drowning.

    Tom—I think what you’re saying is “think like scientists” to most people means “thinking processes associated with the process of science.” That’s not what I meant to argue against. I meant to argue against the usefulness of setting tasks for students that are characteristic of what a working scientist, historian, etc. would do. Maybe that happens infrequently in schools. I included it in the book because the more general thinking that goes with it happens more frequently, I think: to look at the way someone who is skilled performs a task, and then to try to teach beginners to do what the skilled person does. For example, if experienced readers can read an entire word at a time without sounding it out (and indeed, they can) then that’s what we should try to get beginning readers to do. It’s an obvious error, I know, but this example is actually taken from a Ed Psych textbook from the 1950s. I think it’s an error that is still made.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 27, 2009 @ 8:51 am

  13. “Since you brought up university teaching (hurrah! something I know about) I can tell you that psychology students seldom reinvent the wheel. They invent a trapezoidal wheel”

    Dan, something you know about? Have you written about it? This is not to criticize what you do write about. I usually agree with you. But have you described, in some detail, what you do in the classes you teach, what you try to do, what your methods are and the rationale of those methods, what your students are like, what motivates them, what doesn’t motivate them, what you teach that students pick up easily, what you try to teach but students have trouble with, how you elicit responses from students, how you deal with unwelcome responses, how you determine grades, and why, and on and on? If you’ve written all this (just a few pages could tell us a lot), give us a link. If you haven’t, why not?

    In recent years I have complained about a lack of simple description in the study of education (here’s a link. ) I have made an attempt to describe what I do (here, and here. ) I wish many others would do the same.

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 27, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

  14. Not my intention to start an argument over (of all things) seating charts, but in the work I do with first-year teachers, the research we use (which centers on students’ locus of control and academic achievement) indicates that giving students control over things that don’t matter (like where they’re sitting) allows a teacher to exert greater control over the things that do matter (like learning). We tell our novice teachers that the great advantage of a seating chart, early on, is learning kids’ names. Unnecessary power struggles are things to avoid, and students with an internal locus of control are higher achievers. The topic of seating charts is a perennial favorite in our new-teacher support groups. It takes them awhile to understand that seating charts are not infallible solutions.

    On the other hand, a well-crafted seating chart is certainly a higher-consciousness strategy for classroom management than, say, pitching a fit (another default mode for newbies). Either way, your original point stands firm: practice makes better, if you’re paying attention.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 27, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

  15. “Not my intention to start an argument over (of all things) seating charts, but in the work I do with first-year teachers, the research we use (which centers on students’ locus of control and academic achievement) indicates that giving students control over things that don’t matter (like where they’re sitting) allows a teacher to exert greater control over the things that do matter (like learning)”

    In what parallel universe does where the students sit not matter?

    I would love to see the research that shows it doesn’t matter whether students can see or hear what is going on, that it doesn’t matter if they are being distracted, that it doesn’t matter if disruptive students can’t be monitored by the teacher, or if those students who are struggling don’t have quick access to the teacher.

    There isn’t some finite amount of control a teacher has that they can ration out carefully according to a tight budget. Either the teacher has a level of control of the events in their classroom or they don’t.

    Comment by oldandrew — March 28, 2009 @ 10:55 am

  16. I agree with Oldandrew: the “locus of control” should be in the TEACHER. If kids want to initiate a power struggle, fine. But the teacher needs to win that power struggle, and she CAN win it if parents and administrators support her, as they should. It’s not barbarous or immature for a teacher to think this way –it’s called being the grown-up and the authority in the room. Please don’t caricature such a teacher as a petty, sadistic tyrant; the purpose is not to feel a rush of power, it’s to establish the conditions in which kids can concentrate and hear. To say that teachers need to employ all sorts of psychological finesse, and to cede certain powers to kids, is to imply that kids actually have a RIGHT to be rude and rebel if the teacher fails to do these things. Or that it’s impossible to control a room unless you do these things. These seem to be a widely-held beliefs, and I think it’s one of the big drags on American education, because students view equivocation about authority as an opening to chit-chat and mess around when they need to be listening or reading. I tell my students that it’s NEVER OK to talk when the teacher is talking. It’s rude, and more plainly, WRONG –regardless of whether they got to choose their seat. Would any of you adults here disagree? Why shouldn’t we be sending our kids this message: “I am the teacher; you are the student; you need to behave”?

    Comment by Ben F — March 28, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

  17. Gentlemen,

    I never said it didn’t matter if students could see or hear, or if they were distracted. And I certainly would never say that teachers needed to “cede their powers” to kids. But it’s interesting that you jumped right in to interpret what I did say, including some extremely creative extensions and flourishes.

    It’s beginners’ mistake to attempt to punish students for misbehavior by re-seating them. The results are not likely to be productive or stable, and can even backfire–until the teacher has established an authoritative atmosphere in the classroom, and then seating is less critical. An authoritative classroom is not one where the teacher “wins” all the power struggles–it’s a classroom where students don’t feel compelled to launch those power struggles, because they respect the teacher, and are learning something.

    With very small and powerless children, you can intimidate them into obedience, but the older kids get, the savvier and more resistant they are to threats, fear and punishment, especially when it’s been part of their daily lives. You want them to listen when you’re talking because you have important things to tell them– not because they’re afraid of you. Right? You want to influence them, set a good example for them. An external locus of control, residing in the teacher, means that when the teacher is not present the incentive to behave properly goes away. The same reason that some people speed when they’re sure no police are watching, or steal when they’re sure they can get away with it.

    Lots of teachers run very tight ships through a series of incentives to behave properly because it feels good, or it’s the group norm, or it’s the morally correct thing to do–helping kids develop a reliable internal incentive to “do the right thing.” While there are certainly reasons to seat kids in ways that make sense–like learning their names, or making sure they can see– a seating chart perceived as an external control imposed by a vindictive teacher isn’t likely to work very well. And if it leads to more onerous control mechanisms, imposed by a frustrated teacher, the problems escalate. And–back to my original research cite: kids learn better when they have an internal locus of control.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 28, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

  18. Nancy,

    I’d love to read that research about locus of control. Would you mind giving me the name of the study, its authors and any info you might have about how I could obtain it? Perhaps it will sway my views.

    “Helping kids develop a reliable internal incentive to ‘do the right thing’” is education school boilerplate, but I am coming to believe that this kind of talk needlessly complicates and confuses the problem of classroom management, at best, and amounts to sheer mumbo-jumbo at worst. Kids should sit down and listen. Period. And the teacher should teach, and not have to reengineer kids’ brains so that they develop self-control. If they haven’t learned self-control by the time they reach my 7th grade classroom, I use the simple, straight-forward and time-tested approach: I punish them (I know, I’m speaking heresy here). In my experience, that usually works. As a teacher I want to concentrate on the lesson, not psychological finesse. I think ed school professors do beginning teachers a disservice when they denigrate old-fashioned discipline and then point to the fancy schemes of incentives, tinkering with loci of control, etc. as “enlightened” and effective alternatives (and if these “enlightened” and effective new methods are so great, why, at my school at least, do the teachers who try to teach this way seem to have the most out-of-control classrooms?)

    This ideal classroom that you seem to be sketching, Nancy, where the teacher has managed to attain order without resorting to the archaic and brutal “stick” –I believe there are some teachers who have a knack for pulling this off. But such people are rare. And you cannot build a whole nation’s education system based on the assumption that you can find enough of these “horse whisperers” to fill every classroom. It’s folly. None of us teachers like giving out punishment, but it’s simple, efficient and usually effective. These new-fangled approaches are complicated, hard-to-master and often ineffective.

    By the way, “vindictive” is a pejorative word that is probably unfair to apply to most teachers who resort to changing seating arrangements to improve classroom order.

    Comment by Ben F — March 28, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

  19. Ben,

    You bring up a question that has been on my mind. What do we give up when we let our teaching methods and curriculum be dictated by classroom management demands?

    At a recent PD I saw some videos on “Power Teaching.” This method is very popular with some teachers who work with especially difficult classes. They find that children respond well to the constant, rhythmic activity and cues. There are lots of chants, gestures, claps, and “turning and talking.”

    The method makes my flesh crawl. If I were a student in a Power Teaching class I would walk out. It may be the last resort for certain students; does that mean we should subject entire classes to it?

    It is constant activity and talk. There is no thoughtfulness in it. I can see the value of chants for certain activities (phonics practice, multiplication tables, etc.). I am not against chants per se, in the right time and place. But here, in the video below, we have college students learning Aristotle’s Four Causes in a Power Teaching class. This is downright bizarre.

    If this is what it takes to keep a class “engaged” and under control, we are in deep trouble. Students will not learn to sit quietly and think. They will depend on this sort of stimulus throughout their school years. It dumbs down the subject matter. It irritates those who want to think.

    What are the alternatives? We need to stand firm and insist that students learn to listen to the teacher. Of course we need to be reasonable about this. I’m all for making the lesson interesting and varying the activities. But there is much danger, much loss, in making class constantly active and interactive.

    Diana Senechal

    Comment by Diana Senechal — March 28, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

  20. Diana,

    I watched the video on Power Teaching (thank you) –if that’s the future of teaching, I’m outta here! Oy. I agree with you that it dumbs down the subject matter and militates against reflection. It does seem like yet another way in which we’ve decided to solve the discipline and achievement problems by contorting ourselves to please the lowest-common denominator, rather than trying to lift up poorly-adjusted students to a higher level (reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron”). And yet I reckon the majority of middle school principals would look at that and say, “That’s the way we need to go!” because for them the imperative is neutralizing the bored or disruptive students, not raising the academic bar.

    I’ve started to ask my friends about the best classes they’ve ever taken, and what made them so good. Usually the answer has something to do with the brilliance of the teacher, her erudition, or her personality. So far no one has mentioned a class that employed cooperative learning, or students teaching students, or projects, or the personal bond they developed with the teacher… My education school classes that employed these fashionable modes were even more dismal that the ones based mostly on lecture. Traditional methods, like lecture and punishment-for-misbehavior, have been discredited by the slander of progressive ed ideologues in ed schools who are now the gatekeepers of the American ed establishment. Out of our bad memories of certain lame lecturers and petty tyrant teachers, they foster a caricature of traditional ed that we’re ready to accept. But it’s a caricature. As you and I know from experience, a traditional classroom CAN be an immensely fertile place. In fact, the traditional model has endured –in this country, just barely –because it works. Lectures are efficient; punishment is efficient. The model of an erudite, authoritative teacher and relatively docile, attentive students is a good, feasible model. But there’s a ton of prejudice to overcome before our peers will even allow themselves to think such thoughts. It sounds so backwards, so archaic, so old, and as Diane Ravitch wrote in a recent piece, in our culture, there are hardly any greater terms of scorn than these. How could any solution to our huge, TWENTY FIRST CENTURY challenges be simple and old-fashioned? It’s unthinkable! And besides, how would the legions of edu-consultant charlatans and ed tech hawkers make money if we started to think this way?

    I should go back and edit this piece, but I have lectures to plan!

    Comment by Ben F — March 29, 2009 @ 1:59 am

  21. Brian Rude
    I have never written about what I do in the classroom, except in passing. I probably ought to. It would look a whole lot like what I write about on my blog and in the book. (i.e., I try to do the stuff that I say is a good idea.) It’s naturally very different because behavioral management issues are almost non-existent in college.
    And for that reason I’m definitely not going to weigh in on seating charts :)

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 29, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  22. Ben–There’s a great deal of research and theory around the concept of an internal locus of control. Bandura’s work on self-efficacy and social learning (or social cognition) is an excellent place to start. William Glasser’s choice theory (which I originally studied as control theory) has guided a lot of work in school discipline and organization. Their ideas around are not new-fangled ed-school tricks– they come out of the field of psychology and date back four decades, or more. Here’s a quote from one article on student achievement and internal locus of control:

    ” A strong internal locus of control is a good predictor of future academic success. Students with a stronger external locus of control tend not to be as successful academically. Students who rely on teachers to ‘control’ them are less likely to see learning as their own responsibility.”

    Gifford, Briceno-Perriott & Miazano, “Locus of Control: Academic Achievement and Retention in a Sample of First-Year University Students,” Journal of College Admission, Spring 2006.

    Students with a well-developed internal locus of control will be fine in a class where the teacher uses threats and punishment– they already understand why they’re in school and have a desire for order, to be able to learn. But students who are used to being controlled by external forces often begin to see school as a game– an ongoing win/lose skirmish with their teachers and other authority figures– especially as they get older. The ultimate school for people who must have external control to modify their social behavior is prison. This actually aligns with the research that shows American kids tend to see success in school as a result of natural ability–but students in other countries perceiving success as a result of hard work. Hard work and effort is something you can choose to do, whereas being intelligent is something that’s out of your control.

    I’m not saying that teachers (or parents, for that matter) should not use appropriate punishment for misbehavior. Sometimes, a swift action on the teacher’s part is a demonstration that he/she does not make empty threats, and is willing to protect teaching time for the benefit of the rest of the class. Kids never have a “right” to be disruptive– it’s anti-social behavior.

    Developing good strategies for managing a classroom, however, is not dependent on having a “knack” for it, or deciding that old methods are better than new–or relying on a canned program. (BTW, the “Power Teaching” videos gave me the willies, too.) As a middle school music teacher, most of my classes top 60 students–I spent a great deal of time, trial and error in my first few years working on useful ideas to maintain order and a positive climate. Some of the teachers in my building were big on consequence systems– do this, get a detention; do that, get smacked; do something else and I’ll call your parents –but the teachers I admired most were the ones never sent kids to the office, or griped about how rotten their students were at lunch. Most of what I learned about classroom management came from watching the teachers who were able to generate respect without resorting to punishment. I have never seen any new teacher’s quest to master classroom management as an ed-school failure, however. It takes practice. And having some concrete ideas about human behavior is neither confusing nor mumbo-jumbo.

    When I mentioned incentives, I meant psychological incentives (like being part of a group) not material incentives. I’ve worked with new teachers using any number of school-mandated discipline “programs” –from very Skinnerian behavior modification/rewards systems (like charts and stickers, or using “no homework on Friday” as a reward for compliance)–to systems that use public humiliation as a lever. When you start using trinkets or even monetary awards, or shaming a child in front of peers, or confusing homework with punishment in children’s minds, you’re on the wrong path. It might “work” in the short term, but the ultimate goal is having kids take responsibility for their own behavior.

    I agree that “vindictive” is too harsh. Moving a child to a new seat may have a good result. But first, you have to know something about that child, and have a goal in mind. Many new teachers try to break up friends, and seat quiet, cooperative kids next to disruptive ones–but in shuffling the deck instead create a fresh set of problems.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 29, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

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