Tag Archives: learning

“Why don’t children like school?” and “How to teach critical thinking”

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Because the mind is not designed for thinking. (pdf)

Don’t be put off by the ludicrous-sounding subtitle (what he means, as he explains later, is that thinking is hard work and we avoid it wherever possible, usually by relying on memory instead). It’s well worth reading. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology, is not only knowledgeable in his field, he also writes clearly, without condescension or jargon.

He writes for a section in the Washington Post called The Answer Sheet, and has published a book called Why Don’t Students Like School? (The linked pdf file is an excerpt from the book).

The second article, Critical Thinking – Why is it so hard so teach? (PDF) –  is also by Willingham, and this article will be of interest to TPRS teachers. There are certain similarities between his suggestions for effective teaching of critical thinking, and Krashen’s theories of Second Language Acquisition. I’ll write about what TPRS teachers can learn from this article later.

The basic idea of Why Don’t Children Like School is that children don’t like school because they are required to think there, and human beings are not “designed to think”. Well, what Willingham means is two things:

  1. that thinking requires effort and humans prefer to avoid it unless there is no alternative (in particular we prefer to rely on memory),
  2. that, although humans find thinking difficult, they also enjoy it, particularly solving problems, but can only sustain it if there is sufficient satisfaction derived from the effort.

Working on problems that are at the right level of difficulty is rewarding , but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant…. The core idea presented in this article is that solving a problem gives people pleasure, but the problem must be easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough that it takes some mental effort.

Willingham points out three properties of thinking:

First, thinking is slow… Second, thinking is effortful… Third, thinking is uncertain.

Then, Willingham considers the implications for teachers:

What’s the solution? Give the student easier work? You could, of course, but of course you’d have to be careful not to make it so easy that the student would be bored. And anyway, wouldn’t it be better to boost the student’s ability a little bit? Instead of making the work, easier, is it possible to make thinking easier?

… what can teachers do to make school enjoyable for students? From a cognitive perspective, an important factor is whether a student consistently experiences the pleasurable rush of solving a problem. So, what can teachers do to ensure that each student gets that pleasure?

One suggestion he makes is to remember to ask or pose questions. The following paragraph will be interesting for TPRS teachers because a basic TPRS technique is asking questions and using the answers to build a story, or as TPRS teachers say, to ask a story.

One way to view schoolwork is as a series of answers. … Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question. But it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you. When you plan a lesson, you start with the information you want students to know by its end. As a next step, consider what the key question for that lesson might be, and how you can frame that question so that it will be of the right level of difficulty to engage your students, and will respect your students’ cognitive limitations.

I was reminded of a difficulty I encounter while blogging, when I read the following:

There’s a final necessity for thinking: sufficient space in working memory. Thinking becomes increasingly difficult as working memory gets crowded.

How many open tags is the max I can handle?

For details, read the (pdf) article.

The second article, Critical Thinking (pdf), also has some points of interest for TPRS teachers. Willingham asks, “Can critical thinking actually be taught?” His conclusion, based on the results of various studies, is that critical thinking training programs are not as effective a was hoped (or as many people think). He then examines possible reasons for this. To explain, he uses the following concepts: surface structure or knowledge, and deep structure or knowledge, critical thinking as a skill, and metacognitive strategies.


People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skills. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, theyprobably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.

This has implications for TPRS teachers, as it sounds similar to Krashen’s theories about learning and acquisition. Krashen posits that learning, which he defines as conscious learning about the language, does not result in acquisition; in other words, learning rules of grammar, spelling or vocabulary does not necessarily transfer to actual competence. Krashen actually suggests that conscious learning is a waste of time, if one assumes that the goal is language acquisition, although he does admit there is a place for learning grammar, but only after students have acquired sufficient language.

Willingham then examines surface knowledge vs. deep knowledge. Willinghamwrites that when we read, we tend to take in the surface structure first, and not look more deeply. He provides two mathematical word-problems: although they are both about the same mathematical process – using the least common multiple – experiments show that people are more likely to think about the surface structures of the problems:

Earlier in the experiment, subjects had read four problems alongs with detailed explanations of how to solve each one… One of the four problems concerned the number of vegetables to buy for a garden [the other was about calculating the number in a high school marching band]… When a student reads a word problem, her mind interprets the problem in light of her prior knowledge… The difficulty is that the knowledge that seems relevant relates to the surface structure… The student is unlikely to … think of it in terms of its deep structure…. Thus, people fail to use the first problem to help them solve the second: In their minds, the first was about vegetables in a garden and the second was about rows of band marchers.

Willingham is showing that, first of all, we bring our background knowledge to bear on problems; that our background knowledge relates usually only to the surface structure of problems, not to their underlying deep structure hence we may often miss seeing the common factors and therefore the principles to apply to similar problems. He then examines how knowledge of how to solve a problem gets transferred to similar problems which have new or different surface structures.

He relates an experiment which gave the same math problems to groups of American and Chinese students. 75% of the American students solved the problem compared to 25 % of the Chinese students. It was surmised that the reason was cultural: the problem was similar to one faced by Hansel and Gretel in the Grimms’ fairy tale, which most of the American students knew whereas most of the Chinese students were unfamiliar with it. A second problem was given, this time based on a Chinese folk tale, and the percentage of solvers from each culture was reversed. Willingham continues:

It takes a good deal of practice with a problem type before students know it well enough to immediately recognize its deep structure, irrespective of the surface structure, as Americans did for the Hansel and Gretel problem… The deep structure of the problem is so well represented in their memory, that they immediately saw the structure when they read the problem.

Sounds like evidence for providing lots of cultural background information (including stories and fairy tales) in our language classes. It is also suggests, does it not, that the way to develop familiarity with the grammar of a language is not to teach the grammar directly, but rather to provide lots of comprehensible input: It takes a good deal of practice with a problem type before students know it well enough to immediately recognize its deep structure, irrespective of surface structure.

Willingham also takes a look at Critical Thinking Programs, and his conclusion based on the evidence, is that they take lots of time to implement – three years, with several hours of instruction … per week – and the benefits are modest (actually, he says that the studies that have been done have methodological problems, and only a small fraction of the have undergone peer review.)

Next, Willingham takes a look at metacognitive strategies. Perhaps we can help students learn by teaching them to look for deep structure?

Consider what would happen if I said to a student working on the band problem, “this one is similar to the garden problem.”… you can teach students maxims about how they ought to think… they are little chunks of knowledge… that students can learn and then use to steer their thoughts in more productive directions. Helping students become better at regulating their thoughts was one of the goals of the critical thinking programs that were popular 20 years ago… these programs were not very effective. Their modest benefit is likely due to teaching students to effectively use metacognitive strategies… Unfortunately, metacognitive strategies can only take you so far. Although they suggest what you ought to do, they don’t provide the knowledge necessary to implement the strategy. For example, when experimenters told subjects working on the band problem that it was similar to the garden problem, more subjects solved the problem… but most subjects, even when told what to do, weren’t able to do it.

Much has been written, and many studies done, about teaching language students metacognitive strategies (see Anita Wenden’s classic Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy, for example, or any of the zillions of  “learning how to learn” books, etc). Although they seemed interesting and the idea is plausible, I could never overcome a deep suspicion that this was snake oil. Ha! Now I have proof.

Finally, Willingham concludes that scientific thinking cannot be taught in isolation, as a separate skill, like reading music. In fact, Willingham states categorically that critical thinking is not a skill, because it does not transfer in the way that skills do. In addition, the ability to think scientifically depends on scientific knowledge: background knowledge is necessary to engage in scientific thinking.

His conclusions:

First, critical thinking … is not a skill… Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice.

Here are two more articles by Willingham on a similar theme: Inflexible Knowledge: the first step to expertise and Students remember what they think about.

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