Friday, May 01, 2009

How to Wake Up Slumbering Minds

A cool article on the neuroscience of education from The Wall Street Journal. This is a review of Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham.

How to Wake Up Slumbering Minds

Will the discoveries of neuroscientists help us to think, learn and remember?

We are in the midst of an explosion of knowledge about how the human mind and brain work -- how memory comes in many different types, each stored in a different part of the brain; how our minds constantly process information outside our conscious awareness; how differences in brain function help to define differences in our personalities. A lot of this new knowledge raises provocative questions, not least about human nature.


Why Don't Students Like School?
By Daniel T. Willingham
(Jossey-Bass, 180 pages, $24.95)

But as disgruntled students have been saying for ages: How are we ever going to use this stuff? Chemistry can boast of miracle drugs, and genetics has done wonders for our food supply and for medical diagnosis. What about psychology and neuroscience? Shouldn't research on learning and memory and thinking help us to learn, remember and think better?

Daniel T. Willingham thinks that it should. In "Why Don't Students Like School?" he poses nine questions that a teacher might want to ask a cognitive scientist -- beginning with the question in the title -- and then answers each, citing empirical studies and suggesting ways for teachers to improve their practice accordingly. But Mr. Willingham's answers apply just as well outside the classroom. Corporate trainers, marketers and, not least, parents -- anyone who cares about how we learn -- should find his book valuable reading.

So why don't students like school? According to Mr. Willingham, one major reason is that what school requires students to do -- think abstractly -- is in fact not something our brains are designed to be good at or to enjoy. When we confront a task that requires us to exert mental effort, it is critical that the task be just difficult enough to hold our interest but not so difficult that we give up in frustration. When this balance is struck, it is actually pleasurable to focus the mind for long periods of time. For an example, just watch a person beavering away at a crossword or playing chess in a noisy public park. But schoolwork and classroom time rarely keep students' minds in this state of "flow" for long. The result is boredom and displeasure. The challenge, for the teacher, is to design lessons and exercises that will maximize interest and attention and thus make students like school at least a bit more.

Elsewhere Mr. Willingham has his curious teacher ask: "Is drilling worth it?" The answer is yes, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics. Another question: "What is the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?" According to Mr. Willingham, this goal is too ambitious: Students are ready to understand knowledge but not create it. For most, that is enough. Attempting a great leap forward is likely to fail.

It should be said that Mr. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is not in favor of merely making learning "fun" or "creative." He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student's reading comprehension and critical thinking. Such a view makes Mr. Willingham something of an iconoclast, since 21st-century educational theory is ruled by concepts like "multiple intelligences" and "learning styles."

Mr. Willingham notes that students cannot apply generic "critical thinking skills" (another voguish concept) to new material unless they first understand that material. And they cannot understand it without the requisite background knowledge. The same is true of learning to read: Trying to use "reading strategies" -- like searching for the main idea in a passage -- will be futile if you don't know enough facts to fill in what the author has left unsaid. Here, as always, Mr. Willingham shows how experiments support his claims.

The trendy notion that each person has a unique learning style comes under an especially withering assault. "How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?" asks Mr. Willingham's hypothetical teacher. The disillusioning reply: "No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn."

It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in "style," researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as "auditory learners" and "visual learners." Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.

But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum -- at all levels of schooling -- is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. "Specious," for instance, means "seemingly logical, but actually fallacious" whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.

One is tempted to criticize "Why Don't Students Like School?" in only one respect. The text is peppered with the kind of attention-grabbing but ultimately pointless pictures that abound in contemporary textbooks. When Mr. Willingham cleverly describes an episode of the TV medical drama "House" to illustrate how experts think differently from novices -- they don't necessarily have more knowledge but they do focus more rapidly on the most relevant information -- he wastes almost half a page on a photograph of the actor who plays the main character. The space would be better spent on more of Mr. Willingham's brilliant analysis of how we really learn and his keen insight about how we ought to teach.

Mr. Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.

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