How can teachers support students to think and learn?
This is the first in a series of posts about a 2021 book by Dan Willingham: Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Some of this is also available online in the American Educator Journal 2009
Much of this book might be useful for teachers and these blog posts attempt to summarise Dan’s thinking and content.
His first chapter has a focus on thinking, and what he writes is relevant to both teachers and their students: “Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought” (page 2).
What’s great about Dan’s writing is that he starts with things that we all know and then extends our thinking. This confirms that we all learn using what we know, background knowledge. We all know that calculators and computers are faster and more accurate at calculations – that’s a no brainer. What you might not realise is how complex our visual system is and that humans can “see” better than computers.
Dan also presents challenging problem solving tasks to make readers think, then provides the solution. When he revisits this topic later in the chapter, Dan’s making the case for short term, working memory and background knowledge. He continues to build on this knowledge, scaffolding readers to think about the importance of deliberate practice - which ensures new learning moves into long term memory: “With practice, however, the process of driving became automatic, and now I don’t need to think about those small-scale bits of driving any more than I need to think about how to walk” (page 7).
This quote is about how we become more automatic as we practice, and this means we have to think LESS because of our practice.
Dan reconfirms that humans are curious, like to think successfully and it’s the content that matters. The important points from this chapter are around the limits of working memory, for all learners, especially students. One of his core ideas about thinking and problem solving is that “solving a problem gives people pleasure, but the problem must be easy enough to be solved, yet difficult enough to take some mental effort” (page 21). This is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. He recommends that teachers make notes, so they don’t forget what works and what doesn’t work. This supports teachers reflecting on what they do, not just in terms of it going well or being fun. Dan wants teachers to think about how their students think during lessons and whether or not new learning is sufficiently practised to move into long term memory. In Australia, this type of reflection is part of our teacher accreditation and professional learning.