Students learn what they think about
LEARNING is as thinking does. Sounds catchy and for the past few weeks it’s given me something more to think about as I watch and work with my students trying to think. As the sign on the door says, “welcome to the math thinking lab…” and the sign over the whiteboard adds, “Today we are thinking about…”
The inspiration for this aphorism comes from Students remember… what they think about by educational cognitive psychologist and University of Virginia professor Daniel T Willingham, one of a number of articles in Educational Psychology in Context: Readings for future teachers.
Daniel Willingham gives some thoughts on an issue about which student teachers get little or no guidance and which experienced teachers are often too overwhelmed to consider day-to-day: “How does the mind work — and especially how does it learn?”
Reading Mr Willingham’s articles — much recommended — there is some solace for the over-worked, tired, frustrated teacher. How people learn is a complex issue. There are no easy prescriptions even if many of those around you seem to think there are.
“What ends up in a learner’s memory is not simply the material presented — it is the product of what the learner thought about when he or she encountered the material,” he explains.
“When students parrot back a teacher’s or the textbook’s words, they are, of course, drawing on memory. Thus, the question of why students end up with shallow knowledge is really a question about the workings of memory.
“Needless to say, determining what ends up in memory and in what form is a complex question, but there is one factor that trumps most others in determining what is remembered: what you think about when you encounter the material (PiFactory’s emphasis).
“The fact that the material you are dealing with has meaning does not guarantee that the meaning will be remembered. If you think about that meaning, the meaning will reside in memory. If you don’t, it won’t.
“For example, if I teach about Pearl Harbor, some sailing enthusiasts may starting thinking about the ships of the era and pay minimal attention to the rest of the class — just a few minutes after the bell rings they won’t remember much about the causes and consequences of Pearl Harbor.
“Memory is as thinking does.”
Examining what this means for teaching, Prof Willingham advises “if students think about the meaning of material, meaning will end up in memory”.
❏ Anticipate what your lesson will lead students to think about
“The direct relationship between thought and memory is so important that it could be used as a self-check for a teacher preparing virtually any assignment: Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. Doing so may make it clear that some assignments designed with one purpose in mind will achieve another. For example, a teacher once told me that, as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad, he had his students bake biscuits so that they would appreciate what escaped slaves ate most nights. He asked what I thought of the assignment and my reply was that his students will remember baking biscuits.”