Most of us have heard the analogy that our brain is a thinking machine. But, according to Willingham, our brains are not really designed for thinking, because it is slow and unreliable, and requires much effort. In fact, your brain uses most of its processing power to see things and to move around physically. Nonetheless, the good news is that people are curious, as long as the problem is not too easy or too difficult--the Goldilocks special.
So how do we manage to get through life if we don't think well? Essentially, we rely on our memories. Once we've figured out how to do something once (or twice), then we rely on our memory system to recall that piece of information, so that our brains don't have to work hard and figure it out again. For example, when driving a car, you don't have to relearn how to press the accelerator, apply the right amount of pressure on the brakes for stopping, shifting gears, checking for cars on the side, and much more. All those discrete steps are memorized and now recalled perfectly and efficiently. That explains why travelling to a country with a different language and culture is so tiring: you have to relearn all of the simple rules and customs of that particular place.
How does thinking work in basic terms? There are four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any of these is lacking, then thinking will likely fail.
Therefore, one of the reasons why students don't like school is because the tasks and problems they face are either too easy or too difficult, or the thinking required to solve them breaks down in one of the four key areas. So what can be done to alleviate this conundrum?
Have solvable problems: Make sure students have a variety of cognitive work during the day that pose moderate challenge. Are there cognitive breaks? Consider their suitability.
Respect Students' Cognitive Limits: Do students have the necessary background information to solve the mental challenge? If not, prepare them accordingly. Also, don't overload their working memory. Slow the pace and use memory aids, such as writing on the board.
Clarify the Problems: It's difficult for any problem to be "relevant" to an entire group of diverse learners with unique interests. When planning a lesson, start with the information you want students to learn. Then prepare key questions at the right level of difficulty to engage your students and respect their cognitive limitations.
When to Puzzle Students: Do we start with a thought-provoking question, or conduct an interesting demonstration or present a fact? Which is more effective? Sometimes a startling experiment can capture students' attention, but without the proper background information, the temporary thrill will be akin to a magic trick.
Student variance and differentiation: Because students come to class with varying levels of preparedness, understanding, motivation, it is best to assign work that best suits their current level of readiness.
Change the Pace: If you feel you're losing the attention or interest of the learners, then switch gears, change topics, start a new activity or find out what they are having difficulty with, or if it is too easy.
Keep a Diary: As a teacher to improve professionally, it's important to keep track to successes and failures, in order to build up a library of best practices. What worked best for the students? What failed miserably?
Source: Why don't Students like school? Daniel T. Willingham, 2009
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.