Jan. 17, 2023

How To Get Students Thinking - E110

How To Get Students Thinking - E110

This week, we are starting a new book talk series! We are chatting about our learning and reflections on chapter 1 from Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School? There are lots of great brain-based and scientifically-backed ideas for your classroom in this book! 

If you like what you hear, we would love it if you could share this episode with a colleague or friend. And make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss out on any new content! And consider supporting the show by buying us a coffee or two!

We would love to hear from you – leave a comment on our website OR check out our FLIPGRID!

Featured Content
**For detailed show notes, please visit our website at https://edugals.com/110**

  • Why Don't Students Like School by Daniel Willingham
  • More Info about Daniel Willingham (cognitive scientist)
  • Chapter 1: Why Don't Students Like School
  • Guiding principle: "people are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking"
  • We mostly do things on auto-pilot and relies on our memory; very little is true thinking
  • What is thinking? It is taking information from the environment and long-term memory (facts and procedures) and bringing them together into working memory to combine the ideas in new ways
  • Thinking tasks need to be challenging enough to engage but not so challenging that it causes frustration
  • Connections to Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics by Peter Liljedahl
  • Differentiation, mastery-based learning = engagement!
  • Gaps in background knowledge (facts and procedures) can limit engagement in thinking tasks
  • Background knowledge is key - Googling takes way too long and distracts from the problem-solving process
  • Implications for the classroom:
    • Be sure that there are problems to be solved
    • Respect students' cognitive limits
    • Clarifying the problems to be solved
    • Reconsider when to puzzle students
    • Accept and act on variation in student preparation
    • Change the pace
    • Keep a diary
Support the show

Connect with EduGals:

Transcript
Rachel:

In this episode, we are diving into chapter one of Why Don't Students Like School by Daniel Willingham,

Katie:

we will discuss some of our thoughts and our reactions to this chapter and how we can use it in our classrooms.

Rachel:

Let's get started. This week Katie and I are getting into talking about a book and specifically the book we're gonna be talking about here today is Why Don't Students Like School by Daniel Willingham? And really we're just diving into the first chapter cuz this book is a wealth of information.

Katie:

Yeah, it's, it's a neat way of looking at it. So Daniel Willingham is a cognitive scientist, and so he kind of explores how the mind works, but in a way that. Gets teachers and educators thinking about how we teach and, and how we can support students. So it's, it's a very fascinating read. I really like the way he frames it and, and the way he structures his book. So if you're an educator out there wondering how you can get students to like school or how you can engage them more definitely recommend this book.

Rachel:

Yeah, for sure. I devoured this one super, super quickly and I actually need to go back and reread it. So going through and talking about each of the different sort of pieces of the book as we podcast is gonna be super helpful for me to come back and revisit some of the, the key ideas.

Katie:

before we dive into the chapter, it's worth, you know, sharing a little bit about what we've learned about Daniel Willingham, because, you know, there's so many books out there. So why read his book? What has he done in education or in the world of cognitive science and why we chose this one? So I'm gonna defer to you for why, because I know that you're the one that introduced me to this book. So what stood out to you when looking at the book?

Rachel:

Honestly, I love anything that's cognitive science, and I, you know, if you've been listening to the podcast for any length of time, you know that I get super nerdy with, how, how we think, how we learn, how all, all that sort of stuff. So I've, I've read a number of books on this topic, and this one's always been on my wishlist. I think years and I finally just broke down and bought it and, and read it not too long ago, and I don't know why I waited so long.

Katie:

So In terms of who Daniel Willingham is he is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and starting in about 2000. All of his research is, is about education. So how to apply some of this cognitive psychology in education. And he is been writing for different magazines and has different texts, et cetera. But it's really about how students are learning, how students are reading and how we can kind of use the knowledge of the brain to, to better support kids.

Rachel:

Yeah. And he does have some other books as well out. So ones that are kind of interesting, I haven't read them though, are, are raising kids who read. So that comes not just from the teacher perspective, but also from the parent perspective, which I think is really neat. And there's another one, when can you trust the experts, which sounds, especially after going through Covid and everything like that one sounds like that's worth a read too.

Katie:

So, yeah, so um, we can share some links to. Different resources that we found where you can explore a little bit more of his books or texts, articles, et cetera. But yeah, so we thought it was worth a try. And he seems like a, a really, very well learned person who has a lot to share and I love that. His focus really is in education. Okay, so now let's get started. Chapter one. So chapter one is titled, why Don't Students Like School? And when I first opened that I was like, well, that's what I wanna know. why are you starting chapter one that way? But it's really neat. So at least from what I have seen so far, he kind of starts his chapters with an overlying question and then a principle.

Rachel:

Yeah. Each chapter is structured that way. So it's got a qu a guiding question and answer, and I think the first chapter gets into why it's structured that way, which I think is really neat. So we won't spoil it yet. We'll, we'll kind of talk about a couple of other things first. And then there's a guiding principle. which is great. It kind of gives you a big kind of overview of what the goal is and, and what we're learning in that chapter, and then. there's some, there's some information that kind of goes into the cognitive science behind things, but I think the pure gold here in the chapters themselves is at the very end, every chapter ends with implications for the classroom. So it's not only presenting theory, but it's also putting theory into practice. And I think that's what's missing in a lot. I don't know, education, educational research is that there's always that divide between what the theory is and what the practice is. So I really like that he brings these both together.

Katie:

No, it's, it's awesome and it made it so much easier for me to kind of see. I, I don't know, I won't give too much away in terms of structure, but No, it's great. It's, I really like it. So the principle for chapter one, people are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking. So my reactions, when I first read that, I was like, I'm a good thinker. defense mechanism, But but as he went in to actually explain it, I was like, oh, no, no. He, he's totally right. I'm not a good thinker at all.

Rachel:

Yeah, and I think, I think that's kind of the key point is what is actually thinking and having that definition of what thinking is, and then it makes you go, oh, wait a second. No, I actually do avoid thinking unless I absolutely have.

Katie:

Yes. Like there's so many things and, and so what he's saying is there's so many things we do that are just on autopilot because we've learned those behaviors. We've learned how to use our body's mechanisms to the point where we don't think about them anymore. And so a lot of what we do in our lives is actually not thinking at all, which makes sense.

Rachel:

Most of it is coming from what's in our memory. Or their, yeah, their behaviors that are on autopilot or things that are part of your system that are different parts of your brain so that they automatically happen, like. One of the examples he uses is talking about, you know, when you walk into a new space and, and look at the scenery, you don't go, oh, that's green. It's on the floor. So wait a second. That's grass. Like your sensory and your visual systems automatically, recognize, hey, that's grass. Like you don't have to think about it. There, there's some, there's some really sort of neat examples that bring, bring about that. But I think the key sort of idea there is that we don't think, we don't think unless we have to, and once we've kind of got it stored in our long-term memory somewhere, then we'll use that and we'll access that first before we start pulling together new information in new ways to bring about think.

Katie:

He also brings up the fact that our brains are actually not good thinkers overall, but what we're good at is like navigating our environment, our site, our movement, and how when we look at the development of AI and robots, et cetera, a lot of their strengths are more calculation based. The thinking that is harder for humans where. It's taken a lot longer to develop self-driving cars, et cetera, where you have to be able to recognize the things around you and adapt to those in the environment. So it's this idea of the difficult thinking, great for robots, but challen more challenging for humans, which I thought was fascinating, but it makes so much sense. So we really, our brains are really wired. to interact with our environment.

Rachel:

So I guess that really then kind of brings us to, well, what is thinking? And I really like the, sort of the model that he presents in terms of what thinking is and a, and a really clear definition. So he basically says it's taking information from our environ. and from our long-term memory and what could be stored in our long-term memory is not only just facts and things like that we know, but it's also the types of knowledge that we have about different procedures or strategies or ways to go about solving problems and bringing together the information from the environment and the information from your long-term. Into your working memory and then combining those in new ways, and only when you're combining information in new ways, is that actually defined as what thinking is?

Katie:

And so I'm not gonna like spoil any of the problems or, or the kind of exercises he takes you through. But I do have to say he engages you throughout the chapter with different problems for you to solve and then gives you another one and then explains how similar they are. But how. they differ in engagement and, and your ability to problem solve through them and actually stick with the problem, which is so important when we think about students. So the way he had me engaging and trying to think through problems, I very clearly saw a difference between the one that he said would be more challenging and more people would give up on, because I did give up. It was so heavy in text that I was like, peace out. Moving on I'm too tired.

Rachel:

I did the same thing when I read it too.

Katie:

That is amazing. But like that's what our students do too. So it's like recognizing, Hey, look at the way I reacted to a simple problem because it was so text heavy and this is what my students are going to do too. We don't have that capacity to just look at that and sit it out necessarily.

Rachel:

Now that being said, like we're not, we're not good at thinking, like, thinking is a very sort of inefficient process that we do as humans. but we are still naturally curious and we do look for and seek out those opportunities to think and to engage in that kind of problem solving. But I think it's really. I, I, I think a sort of a key idea here is that it needs to be challenging enough that you want to engage in it, but not so challenging that you can't solve it. And, you know, it's, it's above sort of your cognitive level where you're just like, yep, peace out.

Katie:

or that you can't see progress. That's the other thing, because if you're trying to problem solve and you have no idea if you're on the right track, a lot of times that can be so disarming to the point where you're like so frustrated that you don't really wanna continue. So you need to be able to see that progress.

Rachel:

And so I, I kind of see parallels here because I really, and, and I love trying to make connections between different books. Like I think that's one of the, the fun sort of ways that I like to think, I like to find connections between different things. And so I'm seeing parallels here between. coming up with questions that are challenging enough but not too challenging, kind of deal with the building thinking classrooms in mathematics by Peter Lial because he talks about doing the step-wise kind of progression in terms of the problems that students are solving. To keep them in an area he calls flow. And so you don't want it to become too low that students get bored or too high, that students get frustrated. And so I, I think that's a really neat parallel between the two books.

Katie:

And he mentions, mentions that specifically, right? Like it's this idea of you need to find that right balance. and I also like, cuz there was a point in which he mentioned that. if you're able. To find and differentiate work and problems based on the abilities of your students, then you can engage more students and that that had me directly thinking about mastery classrooms, meeting kids where they're at, and building those skills and building that confidence in that engagement in your classroom to then make them more motivated to continue that learning. Because if you're always teaching above them, that's frustrating. If you're teaching above their skill level, they're not going to want to engage because they can't, they can't engage when they don't have the skills and problem solving to be able to get there.

Rachel:

And part of that problem is sometimes they just don't have the required facts or procedures in their long-term memory for any. kind of reason. Like it could be that they were behind, you know, in grade three or whatever. And so they've been behind consistently for years and years and years, and by the time they get to you, you know, there's this big sort of learning gap in terms of their background knowledge. And I see this a lot in a science classroom, especially like if you don't. that background knowledge. So having the facts and the procedural kind of knowledge, it's really hard to engage in inquiry-based learning and project-based learning because you're, you're now adding this complexity to the problem, like to it, as well as not having the, the long-term memory information. And so it's no wonder that students give up or get disengaged with approaches like,

Katie:

I'm actually gonna put my E s L hat on here because he mentions a travel example. But think about your classroom and all the newcomers and those who are still learning the language of instruction. the cognitive load on these students to interact and try to communicate and understand and take in all of this knowledge, all of the interactions, the language on the walls, language in your classrooms, in the hallways, et cetera. It is so hard. It is so taxing and exhausting to have to try to interact 24 7. in a language that is not your own and that you are still learning. So I thought, I love that he mentioned a travel example. Cause then I was like, oh my gosh, that's my newcomers on a daily basis when they're sitting in history class or science class or you know, all of these language heavy courses where they don't even have that first language or the, or the, the ability to. understand necessarily everything that they're taking in around them to accommodate letting them use first language. So trans languaging, like there's so many different things that we can help to reduce that cognitive load on them. But it's just something to keep in mind because how can they really learn? if they don't understand you, and if it's not in a way that they can actually access

Rachel:

I also know, and I might, I might be saying something a bit controversial here, but there's, there's something to kind of just focusing on some of those background skills and background information and knowledge and facts. I know it's not, you know, if you look at depth of knowledge levels or Bloom's taxonomy or any of those sort of like hierarchies, having that knowledge and understanding is at the lowest level, but There's a reason you need it, right? Like you, you need it to be able to get to the higher levels of thinking and the higher levels of a depth of understanding. So I know there are people out there who would kind of say like, you know, you shouldn't focus on that cuz you can Google it. But, Googling something takes time. and takes time away from that problem solving process. So, and that thinking process. So you kind of need some of that information readily in your long-term memory in order to be able to even engage in kind of thinking problems.

Katie:

Yeah. And we live in a country that, you know, we have such a range of lived experiences and when people have come into a country, when they have not, when they've entered our education system, so we can't be assuming that everybody has had the exact same education experience and therefore has learned the exact same knowledge and facts, et cetera. So, I, I almost think it's. One of our responsibilities is educators to figure out what our students know and, and what gaps there are so that we can actually help them to be more, ready to take on our courses.

Rachel:

So let's talk implications for the classroom because there's, there's some really good ones in here.

Katie:

Yeah. So at the end, after his little summary, he gave us seven D. Strategies or implications or how we can kind of use this information. And so the first one is be sure that there are problems to be solved. So there has to be a moderate challenge. It just can't be, you know, a simple question that's a yes or no. And uh, moving on. It has to be something that will actually engage students.

Rachel:

I think it's important just to kind of clarify, like when he says problems too, it doesn't just mean like a question to be addressed to the class by the teacher or some sort of like silly little puzzle or something like that, but it's like just truly cognitive work. Um, It could be engaging in a science experiment or trying to, you know, think about, well if, if the teacher did a demonstration, what's happening behind that particular science phenomenon. Or it could be something like analyzing a text or a poem or something like that.

Katie:

Yeah. So it's essentially the work that you have them digging into. So what they need to examine and think about in your class.

Rachel:

the next one is respect students' cognitive limits.

Katie:

And I love that part of what he wants us to ask ourselves is whether our students have the necessary background knowledge. In their memory in order to help them answer this question because they need to, if they don't have that knowledge. then they're not going to want to engage with that question. So we may find it such a fascinating question, but we have a lot more knowledge in our memories. We're a little bit older and we've had more time to explore the world and learn more about it. So we need to make sure that we're arming them with that knowledge so that they can access it and actually engage with it.

Rachel:

Yeah. And not only that, we can also only hold so much in our working memory and there are limits on it. So if you don't have that background knowledge, then. they're, they not only then need to hold all those new facts in their working memory, but then also work on top on the problem on top of it. And that's gonna lead to an overload really, really quickly. So figuring out where your students are at first, what their background understanding is, is going to kind of really help to avoid some of that overload

Katie:

Yeah. And he lists some really great problems and solutions to some of the overload. And I love the problems because they are actually classroom oriented. And so they actually are totally logical. So a couple of examples here. Multi-step instructions, which we are so guilty of as teachers. Lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic that are more than two or three steps long and application of a just learned concept to new material. that's, we do that all the time.

Rachel:

Oh yeah. that's inherent in the I do. We do. You do. Right. Because we're like, okay, here I do it. Let's do it together. Now you go do it on your own, and it's this brand new concept that they've just learned, but you're expecting that application of it right away. So some, some good solutions that he provides. There are things like slowing the pace down, you know, making sure that it's written instructions and, and things like that. Or different sort of new pieces of information that are learned are written on the whiteboard or somewhere displayed in your classroom in order for students to have to hold less in their working memory.

Katie:

It so simple and yet sometimes we can forget those things. The third one is clarifying the problems to be solved. So I saw this one as more of like a, teacher centered solution or problem where we really need to think more carefully about the questions we want them to answer and take the time to make sure it's good enough, so to speak.

Rachel:

And not only that, but you don't have to relate a question or a problem to what a student's interest is necessarily in order to engage them. Like the problem just needs to be naturally and inherently challenging enough to build that curiosity. So don't feel that you need to relate it to a student's hobby, for example. to try and engage them. That that's not the whole purpose of this. It's, it's about finding those ways to frame the question in order to get that right sort of level of difficulty in order to engage your students.

Katie:

Yeah, I also see it as like a backwards planning suggestion, like come up with your questions and then do they have enough of the background knowledge to support that question? So have you done enough of that instruction in that knowledge building that they can actually engage in that question to begin with? So I, I kind of like that as also that reminder of, did I think of my question enough that I've ensured they have that, have I thought of the questions first and then gone back to build my unit? Like what's my problem and how do I get them there?

Rachel:

I like the next. and this is reconsider when to puzzle students. And it kind of gets at that, you know, you should have a hook for your lesson and explains why. Not necessarily. That's always the greatest idea. And so, you know, instead of presenting a problem at the beginning of a lesson and trying to engage your students with that sort of hook and that sort of curiosity, it's not always necessarily great because you know, it might give them that temporary. but then they're not going to be able to think about it the way you want them to think about it and, and engage in that thinking. So it's almost better to bring that, thing later on once they have the right background kind of knowledge in order to be able to engage in that thinking in the first place. And I'm guilty of that, of doing that in my classroom, right? Like you always, especially in science, you're like, Hey, like let's, you know, make something explode. Let's, you know, do this reaction and show students. But if they don't have that background knowledge to understand what's going on, like what's the point? It's just a

Katie:

Yep. The next one is accept and act on variation in student preparation. So this one is just reminding yourself that students come from different lived experiences, different life. situations and how that can impact their own self-confidence and willingness to engage in school. And so it's, it's this reminder of I can't make problems that are way beyond inability of my students because it's just going to help them feed into this The self-perception of themselves is bad learners because then they're never going to want to engage in my classroom or in school in general.

Rachel:

So one of the, the second last one is change the pace. So just planning for shifts in terms of attention, because spending too much time in one sort of pace, you're gonna, you're gonna lose your students. And I think we all know that inherently as teachers, right? Like, you're not going to do the same thing for the entire. Class period because you lose your students after, I don't know, maybe about 10 minutes at most.

Katie:

So I always think of teachers on a PD day when it's this really boring, monotonous learning and how terrible we are as students. We're the same way. Like you can't just have a very uninteresting, like if you notice that people are checking out, change it up. Change the activity, get them moving, get them thinking in a different way.

Rachel:

And then the last one is keep a diary.

Katie:

And I think this is great. It's, it's a way to track what works, what doesn't, what you'd wanna change and just kind of keeping track of how students are doing and how they liked the lesson or didn't, or maybe you didn't like it because our memories aren't the greatest and we can't just rely on memories alone,

Rachel:

So yeah, there, there's some really great suggestions and, and just things to really sort of make you think about your classroom and, and think about the way that you're structuring lessons.

Katie:

Yeah. It, it's very fascinating and it's, It really is common sense, but oftentimes we lose sight of some of the simpler things that we should be doing as teachers, and so it's a good reminder to kind of slow down and, and be more meaningful in what we're doing

Rachel:

On that note, we're going to wrap up our conversation here for today and we'll come back and we'll revisit this book in a few episodes time probably. But for now, if you want to access any of the resources or links we talked about here today, you can go to our show notes@edugals.com slash 10. That's edu g a l s.com/.

Katie:

And if you like what you heard today, then feel free to share it with a colleague or a friend. And don't forget to subscribe on your favorite podcast app so that you don't miss out on any future content.

Rachel:

And as always, we'd love to hear from you. So if you are reading this book and you have some thoughts and ideas that you'd like to share with us, we'd love to hear them. You can go onto our. At edgy gals.com/flipgrid and leave us a video message there, or you can go onto our website@edgygals.com and leave us a written response,

Katie:

Thanks for listening and see you next week.