The book makes a strong case for a more traditional approach to teaching, underpinned by an understanding of how the brain works. Despite the fact that in the last 25 years we have made huge advances in terms of understanding how the brain works, many aspects of perceived ‘good’ teaching methods, don’t appear to have taken this on board. In the book, Willingham covers 9 cognitive principles. In the forum tonight, Andy focused on one:
People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.
There are four main ideas around this principle:
- “Thinking is slow, effortful and uncertain”
Thinking takes time and so learning can only happen over time. It takes a great deal of effort and determination and will involve ‘getting it wrong’ a great deal. To start with, it will be clunky, involve a number of mistakes and take a great deal of effort.
- “We rely on our memories”
Because of this, we are designed to avoid thinking and instead rely on what we have stored in our long term memory. This allows us to access this information and therefore respond without much thought.
- “We find ‘successful’ thinking pleasurable”
When we ‘think’ and ‘solve’ a problem – it appears to be a pleasurable experience.
- “For problems to be solved, the thinker needs adequate information from the environment, room in working memory, and the required facts and procedures in long term memory.”
This can be explained by a simple diagram:
If we are going to solve a problem we need to receive information about it from our environment, through our senses e.g. we’ll see things, hear things, feel things etc. This ‘stuff’ that’s around you, that you are aware of will be stored in your ‘working memory’. The ‘long term memory’ is the huge amount of factual knowledge that is stored, which will have come through your working memory. We’re not always aware of this long term memory, until we need it – when it then comes into our working memory. Thinking happens when you combine what’s in your environment, with what’s in your long term memory – and this processing happens in your working memory.
The problem is, we are limited with what our working memory can cope with – we can probably only cope with 5-9 things in our working memory at once. In the book, Willingham explains this using the following problem:
This stumped even more people! However, the problem is the same, as the previous problem. The people are like the pegs in the first problem and the tasks are like the rings. What makes it seem more difficult is the way it is presented – there is far more to store in the working memory. The picture of the pegs and hoops in the first problem provides us with a mental image of what has been done – so aids the working memory. This isn’t available in the second problem, making it more difficult.
What are the implications for teaching?
- Ensure there are ‘problems’ to be solved when planning lessons and that it is not just a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunity for students to solve problems. ‘Problems’ are “cognitive work that poses moderate challenge”.
- Remember that students have cognitive limits. Save problems for another time if the background knowledge is not there.
- Make sure you do not overload working memory. Slow the pace and use cues in the environment e.g notes and images on the board. This prevents students from having to keep too much in their working memory
- Plan lessons around questions to be solved…and that can be solved by the students. So frame your questions with the right level of difficulty to engage students and respect their cognitive limitations.
- Teach basic concepts before ‘puzzling’ students. That way they can solve the problem. The ‘National Strategy’ classic 3 part lesson was not great at this. For example, in science lessons we would often start the lesson with a whizz bang practical that would leave students open-eyed. We would then ask them to explain it. Which of course they wouldn’t be able to do, because they didn’t have the basic knowledge.
- Ensure that weaker students are not over-challenged – if they are, they will struggle not to switch off. This is a fine balancing act – not dumbing down too much and lowering our expectations, but at the same time not overloading them cognitively.
- Plan shifts into lessons to regain attention. When their attention is beginning to ‘drift’ do something different in the lesson – change activities. This will generally regain the focus. This is not to be confused with ridiculously ‘over-pacey’ lessons, that give students no opportunity to be successful with problems.
The forum gave us much to reflect on, in terms of how these cognitive processes should shape and inform our teaching. It also generated some discussion about the myth of learning styles, summed up brilliantly here by Willingham: