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Why Don't Students Like School?

A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means For The Classroom

Daniel Willingham

Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking. It is designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is not very good at it. We are curious, and we like to solve problems, but if the problems are too hard, we will avoid thinking. The main work the brain does is seeing and moving. You can get an idea of how much horsepower is needed to run these two tasks by looking at how difficult it is to get a robot to duplicate these abilities. You can buy a cheap calculator that will do simple maths faster and more reliably than a human, but the most powerful computer on the planet cannot drive a truck.

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Most of what gets us through the day is not thinking but memory. This is brought home to us when we travel somewhere we don't speak the language - almost every task requires conscious thought.

One way to look at schoolwork is as a series of answers. But teachers are often so keen to get to the answer that they don't spend enough time developing the question. Being told and answer doesn't do anything for student. It's the question that piques interest. When you plan a lesson, start with the info you want student to know by the end. Then consider what the key question should be to lead to that answer. Finally work out how to frame the question so it is not too easy and not too hard.

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You can't learn to "think" in isolation of facts. being able to think critically about origins of WW2, say, doesn't make you any better at thinking critically about a chess game or the current situation in the Middle East. Background factual knowledge needed for several reasons. Supplies vocab, so understand what writer saying. English, like most languages, is quite ambiguous, and background knowledge helps reader bridge gaps writers leave.

Suggest that this is reason for 'fourth grade slump'. Students from poor homes often manage to read at grade level for first 3 years at school, because just have to decode what written words say. But by year 4, comprehension becomes important, and kids without background knowledge falter. Basically, the more you can read the better.

When see someone apparently engaged in logical thinking, they are actually doing memory retrieval. When we are faced with a problem, we first search for solution in memory, and if we find one, we use it. This is easiest tactic, and we remember it because it worked.

Your memory is not a product of what you want to remember, or what you try to remember, it's a product of what you think about. You can't put things in long-term memory unless they have first been in working memory. In other words, you have to be forced to think about it. We have lots of things that we want to remember, and that you think you've paid attention to (names of people you meet, words to second verse national anthem, where car keys are right now) but have forgotten. And we have stored lots of stuff that didn't want, and didn't think paid much attention to (words of an old song, what the Fosbury flop is, other trivia).

An old, and flawed, way of getting kids to pay attention is to make the example relevant but that in fact usually distracts eg try teach algebra by getting kids to figure out cell phone minutes. The kids wind up thinking about cell phones instead of maths, and the maths stuff doesn't stick.

The multi Q surveys of university lecturers are redundant - all Q's boil down to 2 things: Does the guy seem like a nice person, and is the class well organized? Turns out that these are the 2 impt aspects - a well-organized but disliked teacher, or a popular but disorganized teacher are not effective. Need to be able to connect with kids and need to present info in a way that is easy to understand ie organized, step-by-step.

What we all remember is stories. Stories have a predictable structure - typically they are chronological, there is conflict and complications, and they feature a strong character. They are interesting in the 'not too easy and not too hard' sense - you have to think about what you are hearing and fit it all together. And they are easier to remember because recalling one bit of the story usually prompts recall of rest.

Myth that hypnosis helps retrieve memories. Tests show clearly - give two groups things to remember, then a few days later hypnotise one group - find that the hypnotised group no better at recall. Hypnosis makes you more confident that your recall is right, but it doesn't improve accuracy.

It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice. You cannot become a good soccer player if, when yr dribbling the ball, you have to worry about how hard to hit the ball, which part of foot to strike with etc. Low-level processes like this need to become automatic, leaving room for high level brain work like game strategy. Similarly you can't get good at algebra without knowing math facts by heart. Some things have to be drilled. You master a skill, then practice to improve ability. A tennis player masters skill of reliably putting serve on opponent's side of net, then improves speed and accuracy. An essay writer masters skill of a persuasive essay, then must practice to turn it into an 'A' class effort.

Working memory is the site of thinking. Thinking occurs when you combine information in new ways. That info might come from the environment and/or from yr long term memory. When you try to answer Q "How are a butterfly and a dragonfly alike?" you pull data about the two into working memory. But working memory is limited in capacity and can only hold so much. So if yr asked "What do a butterfly, a dragonfly, a chopstick, a pillbox and a scarecrow have in common?" there are too many items to hold in memory at once. While yr trying to relate a pillbox to a dragonfly, you've forgotten the other words. (They are all compound words) This is a major bottleneck in human cognition.

And it seems to be fixed - there are no exercises that you can do to stretch the capacity. You can cheat if you can find a pattern in data. For example the word cognition takes up the same amount of space as each letter c, o, g, n, i, etc. And practice allows you to shift a task from working to automatic memory, such as driving a car.

Often hear suggestion that should teach kids to 'think like a scientist' rather than just learn facts. But in fact trained scientists think differently to novice scientists. You actually have to do the 10,000 hours before they can 'do' real science - expt on something new and then make sense of the results.

Example of Dr House as he solves mysterious cases. He frequently makes mistakes in initial diagnosis, but keeps reevaluating as new data/symptoms are noticed. But the assessments suggested by junior staff are exposed (generally with withering sarcasm) as being wrong because an impt symptom (or lack of one) makes the diagnosis impossible. The main thing is that his fund of acquired knowledge leads him to think differently, almost instinctively. Compared to novices, the expert can access a lot of info quickly, come up with multiple possibilities and notice salient details.

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