- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

School starts tomorrow for many children, a signal that it’s time to think, think, think, right?

Well, yes and no. Humans are kind of thinking averse, according to cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” In fact, if the brain can solve a problem without thinking, relying instead on, say, memory, it will.

“Our brains are designed for the avoidance of thought,” Mr. Willingham says. “Because thinking is effortful and unreliable.”

Compare that to the brain’s other functions, such as vision and controlling movement. For most of us, those tasks are pretty reliable and effortless. If you’re asked to lift your gaze, is it difficult? If you’re asked to lift your foot, is the outcome unreliable? Not really.

If, however, you’re asked to do a math problem that requires thinking — that’s a whole different ballgame. You might start asking, what’s in it for me? Or why don’t we just use a calculator?

“The truth is when we can get away with it, we don’t think,” Mr. Willingham says.

Kids are no different, he says.

So, what to do, call the whole thing off? Not so fast.

While humans are averse to thinking, we’re certainly up to the task if we feel motivated and capable. One way to pique our interest is to present information in the form of a puzzle or mystery that is at the edge of our capacity to solve.

“Humans are naturally curious,” Mr. Willingham says.

Before those puzzling questions are posed to students, however, they must have the contextual and conceptual knowledge to understand them. In other words, are the factual building blocks there? For example, it doesn’t serve any purpose to ask questions about the Boston Tea Party if the students have no knowledge about the era or issues surrounding it.

Facts as building blocks, as it turns out, are particularly important to young — elementary and even middle school — children, whose brains simply aren’t yet set up for heavy loads of analytical thinking.

“The frontal cortex — the analytical part of our brain — develops the slowest,” says John Gabrieli, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “While the hippocampus develops faster.” (The hippocampus is associated with memorizing facts.)

In essence, abstract thinking is not young kids’ forte: They’re less able to “think on the fly” and more dependent on visuals and concrete facts to understand a story or a concept. Which mean the onus is on the teacher not only to know the subject, but also to discover what the child’s brain is capable of — in other words, how they think — before trying to convey any information.

“Only if you have enough background information will the question and answer make any sense,” Mr. Gabrieli says. “It’s about finding the ‘sweet spot’ of learning.”

There is also some evidence that this sweet spot of learning is rewarding for students on both a psychological level (“Yes, I did it!”) and a neurological level, Mr. Gabrieli says, adding that the system in the brain that gets a pleasure rush from, say, good food, also is affected when we achieve or solve something.

“It’s all connected to the dopamine system,” he says.

The opposite of the “sweet spot” is the “turn off,” which often happens in subjects such as math where conceptual knowledge is extra important, but often lacking.

“If you don’t truly understand something in math, it’s almost impossible to go forward,” Mr. Willingham says.

For example, if you don’t understand that the equals sign means equality, simply thinking it’s something that comes at the end of a math problem, you’re going to take issue in fifth or sixth grade when suddenly there are numbers on both sides of the equals sign.

“You’re going to think the rules have changed midgame,” Mr. Willingham says.

Part of the problem in the U.S., he says, is too many math topics are introduced during the school year. In math-whiz countries such as Singapore and Japan, for example, only two to three topics are introduced each year, allowing the children to truly understand those concepts. In the U.S., five to six topics typically are taught each year.

“And the thinking goes, ‘It doesn’t matter if they don’t get it now because we’ll come back to it again next year,’” Mr. Willingham says.

The problem is, he says, many kids never get it because they never really get enough time to absorb and understand the basic concepts. Instead they do math on autopilot, going through the motions.

“Our conceptual knowledge is really lacking,” Mr. Willingham says, adding that providing math specialists in elementary schools could be part of the solution.

In high school, on the other hand, lists of facts are not the end-all, says Sam Wineburg, professor of education at Stanford University.

Teenagers are more capable of analytical, abstract thinking and should be encouraged to contextualize and question source materials — as opposed to merely learning tidbits of facts, says Mr. Wineburg, whose specialty is history education.

In the end, teachers — just like writers — must know their audience, at least in a general sense. They don’t need to know the specific background knowledge of each child, but if they know in general terms what a certain age group is capable of from a cognitive and physiological standpoint, it can help, Mr. Willingham says.

He also recommends that teachers spend more time developing contexts and questions, keep a diary of what works in the classroom and share notes with colleagues.

“The call is always for smarter teachers,” Mr. Willingham says. “It should also be for teachers who understand the mind-set of kids, which is really hard.”

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