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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/ 1/2009

Q & A on Learning

By Valerie Strauss

As promised yesterday, here is more from cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia, and author of "Why Don't Students Like School," on how kids learn and what teachers should and shouldn’t be doing in class. The Answer Sheet asked him some questions, and he kindly provided the answers:

Q) Is there one overriding reason why kids don’t like school? We all know lots of kids who don’t like school because it is too easy, too hard, or just plain boring. There’s more to it?

A) School is all about mental activity: learning new things, tackling novel problems. What makes that “boring” or interesting? We know a couple of things from laboratory research on problem solving. (By “problem solving” I mean any sort of challenging mental work that is not routine for you, whether it’s understanding a poem, planning a garden, or developing a filing system.)

Both conclusions probably fit well with your own intuitions. Working on mental problems is not all that fun, but solving them is. We get a mental snap of satisfaction, a feeling of pleasure when we solve a problem. But working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is just frustrating.

A second, related point is that problem difficulty is crucial to the likelihood that you’ll find it enjoyable. If a problem is too difficult, you won’t get that snap of satisfaction that comes from solving it because you won’t solve it! And if it’s too easy, solving it is not fun because it never seemed like a problem in the first place. Imagine completing a crossword puzzle written for children. You would just feel like you were pulling things out of memory, not that you were working out the answers.

Q) You say that the brain is not designed for thinking... That’s kind of wild. Explain. What is it designed to do? What does it do well, then?

A) Suppose I pose this riddle: “You answer me, although I never ask you questions. What am I?” Coming up with an answer would obviously take some thought; for example, you might try to come up with different senses of the word “answer.” Now suppose I tell you the solution—a telephone. If you heard this riddle next week, you would not try to solve it; you would pull the answer from memory. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard this one. It’s a telephone.” That goes for most of the types of problems that confront us every day. They are problems we’ve solved before—how to get home from work, how to select a loaf of bread from the dozens of available brands, and so on. These are problems we could think about, but don’t. We solve them the way we usually do, meaning we draw these solutions from memory.

The reason we don’t think about these problems is that, when compared to memory, thinking is slow, effortful, and unreliable. Pulling the solution to a problem from memory (“buy the Wonder Bread”) is quick and easy. But thinking about a problem (“let me compare all these brands for nutritional value, cost, and freshness) takes a long time, it’s tiring, and you may not even end up with an answer, as is often the case for me when people pose riddles. The ability to think is obviously crucial when you don’t have an answer ready in memory. But when we have solved a problem before and the solution seemed satisfactory, we are very likely to use this fast, easy, reliable route the next time we face the same problem.

So what our brain does especially well is to store previous solutions in memory in order to save us from having to think. Imagine a world in which you approached every problem as if it were brand new. By the time you were showered and dressed the day would be half over!

Q) Teachers are in a lot of trouble if it is true that people basically don’t like to think. What are they supposed to do?

A) I would characterize it a bit differently. It’s not that people don’t like to think. It’s that people don’t like to think about problems that are too easy or too hard. And people appear to be pretty good at sizing up whether a problem will hit that “sweet spot” of difficulty. If the problem looks challenging enough, but not too challenging, we are intrigued. If it’s too easy or too difficult, we’re more likely to avoid it, if we can.
Now imagine the challenge for a teacher who has twenty-five students with widely differing preparations. How can he or she write lesson plans that are interesting for everyone? One student may have a deep understanding of adding fractions with like denominators and knows her math facts quite well; the student next to her may have only a tenuous grasp of each. How can the teacher engage both in a lesson on adding fractions with unlike denominators?

I don’t see a way around this problem other than to do some grouping of students based on what they know going into the lesson. A valid concern is that the student who is behind will feel discouraged and ashamed that she is in the “slow” group. I think that this problem can be alleviated to some degree by the teacher’s attitude. The teacher can make clear that these are not ability groupings, which would indicate something intrinsic and unchanging about the children; rather the groupings reflect how far children have come thus far. The alternative--not using some sort of grouping--not only increases the likelihood that many students will be bored, it makes it likely that the less prepared students will conclude that they “just can’t do math” and that they will fall farther behind.

Q) What are some common ways teachers use to try to engage kids but that aren’t really effective?

A) I see a lot of discussion in teacher preparation courses of making things relevant to student interests and I expect it helps to some degree, but I also see two problems.

First, I think it’s important for students to learn that there is beauty, pleasure, and interest in learning things that have nothing to do with them.

Second, I don’t think it’s all that effective, because people usually define “relevant” by the content—it’s relevant if it’s the kind of material that students are already interested in.

But as I described above, I don’t think interest works that way. We’re interested in something when we are given a problem of moderate difficulty, one we think we can solve with a little effort. Content is no guarantee of interest. That’s why you sometimes turn on a documentary on a subject you love, and find yourself bored. It’s just a lousy documentary. Or why you might find yourself fascinated when watching a documentary on a topic you thought would be boring.

Q) What should teachers be doing?

A) I think there are lots of ways to intrigue and engage students. I am a fan of thinking carefully about the question that lurks behind every lesson plan. It’s easy to focus too much on answers— on what we want students to know. Answers are not very interesting if you don’t know the question. As I emphasized before, interest is piqued when we hear a question that we believe we can answer, with a bit of thought. So I think it really pays to spend some time setting up the question, rather than plunging right in to the answer.

Q) Are there subjects that are harder to get kids engaged than others? If so, why?

A) I think you need conceptual knowledge. If you’re going to see new subject matter as something that is just a little bit puzzling, something that is worth some thought so that you’ll get that pleasant feeling of having solved a problem, a conceptual understanding is crucial.

If your understanding of mathematics is limited to procedures without understanding why they work, a new topic in math is not going to be interesting, even if it is presented as solving a “real world” problem. You need to know what you’re doing. You can’t see the solvability of the new stuff because what you know (procedures) is isolated from other knowledge.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 1, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Tags:  brain, learning, schoolwork, teachers  
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