4 Ways To Make Thinking Easier For Your Students

Students don't like school because thinking is difficult according to Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don't Students Like School.

Read it.

Thinking is a slow and tedious process and we don't like to do it for anything unnecessary for survival.  The brain and body have automatic responses to deal with life's most pressing issues.  Think of all the emotional and physical impulses associated with the key components of live: food, safety, and reproduction.

You feel hungry so you don't need to think about whether or not you need food.

When startled, you duck your head and bring your arms to your chest protecting your head and visceral organs.

And well, reproduction explains itself.

Thinking is what the brain does to deal with anything not essential for life and death.  It is combining external perceived stimuli with knowledge stored in long term memory to make sense of an ever-changing environment.

Deliberate thinking is not only effortful and laborious, it is often flawed.  It it filled with biases, judgements, and memories that are dynamic and ever-changing.  Read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnmen for more information on how the brain makes decisions.

Students don't like school because thinking is difficult.  If you want your students to like school, make thinking easier for them and facilitate the process.  In this article, you'll learn four ways to do just that.

If you haven't added Why Don't Students Like School to your Amazon.com shopping list, please go do so.

1.  Prioritize the clarity of the problem

Leave ambiguous statements like "what is the meaning of life" to philosophers and give your 9th grade Earth Science students a break.  Define clear expectations.  If you don't define objectives, the students will first have to problem solve to determine what the problem is that they have to solve- and that's tough.

2.  Get their attention

Thinking is easier when your students direct their attention at the problem.  So the question now becomes: how do you get your students to pay attention?  This is an article (or book!) in itself, but start here:
a.  use emotional introductions: the brain pays attention to aspects of the environment that are emotionally arousing.(read more about emotion and learning here)
b.  transition quickly into new activities: variability in a lesson not only encourages multisensory learning, it also keeps them guessing and active.
c.  embrace relevance: relevant content immediately connects itself to students.
d. novelty: attention is given to new things

(Check out the attention chapter in John Medina's fantastic book Brain Rules for more information on attention)

3.  Understand working memory

Earlier, we defined thinking as combing external perceived stimuli with existing knowledge from long term memory to make sense of an ever-changing environment.  Working memory is the brain "space" where these connections are made.  Unfortunately, this space is finite and can easily be overwhelmed.  From Willingham:
"Overloads of working memory are caused by such things as multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept to new material..."
If we have a large task, it is often recommended to break it down into manageable chunks.  Learning and thinking are large tasks, we need to break them down to manageable, mentally digestible chunks.

4.  The goldilocks question: not too hard, not to easy, but just right

The Pragmatic TV teacher loves psychologists, especially ones with tough to pronounce names.  Remember last week (last post) we talked about the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  We'll use his ideas again this week.  He highlights the fact that problems which are too difficult become frustrating and problems that are too easy are boring.  But problems with the appropriate level of challenge are fun and people enjoy attacking them.

The questions you pose to your students need to be engaging, but not overwhelming.  They need to induce curiosity, but not bore.  Students think at different levels and therefore we need to question at different levels.  Differentiate your instruction and create questions that vary in difficulty.

To summarize: thinking is difficult and we can make it easier on our students by being clear with our expectations, getting their attention, using appropriate questions, and by being thoughtful of their cognitive capacities.

Thanks for reading.

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