Prolonged school closure during the pandemic drove home (in this case quite literally) the point that kids hanker for school. But if you asked most children what they missed about in-person school, friends, fun and extracurricular activities typically topped their list. Few children view learning, either remote or offline, as stimulating and enjoyable. In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham argues that deliberative thinking is hard and doesn’t come easily to humans. In fact, the human brain is designed to respond to stimuli more instinctually. However, because we are also “naturally curious”, human beings do cherish deliberation or effortful thinking but the “conditions have to be right”. What can teachers do to create more conducive conditions in the classroom? In this article, I outline Willingham’s recommendations. However, as he approaches the issue of student engagement purely from a cognitive perspective, I expand on or tweak his recommendations, keeping motivational and affective factors in mind.
Willingham believes that the brain favours the Goldilocks rule. If a problem is too challenging or easy, we don’t derive satisfaction from solving it. But if a problem or question is of an optimal level of difficulty, then we find it rewarding to figure out the solution. So, teachers may create questions of varying levels of difficulty to better suit the needs of individual learners. Apart from a few fundamental questions that everyone answers, students may be given leeway to choose which problems they wish to solve or which topics they would like to do a project on.
Thinking in any field, depends on background knowledge. Deeper and vaster networks of information, that are meaningfully linked, help students engage in creative and critical thinking. As thinking cannot occur in a vacuum, Willingham favours helping children build networks on interconnected information. But what knowledge or content should schools focus on? Currently, most curricula attempt to provide students with a fundamental background in core disciplines including language, mathematics, science and social science. Because schools try to cover a vast array of topics in each field, students end up with a piecemeal and superficial grasp of concepts that they often forget soon after an exam. If schools can instead allow students to choose a smaller subset of topics that they each wish to pursue more deeply, learning can be more engaging and personally meaningful for them. Of course, this entails making substantial shifts to our current one-size-fits-all system.
For education to have a lasting impact, we need to remember what we learn. However, most of us forget the information we crammed for exams. Willingham argues that if we want content to stick in students’ memories, then we need to make it meaningful to them. In other words, students need to create conceptual linkages between various ideas and also recognize the larger significance of why they are learning something. Willingham exhorts teachers to capitalize on the power of stories as the human mind is predisposed to appreciate and remember stories. If teachers can incorporate the elements of a riveting story, namely, “causality, conflict, complications, and character”, into their lesson plans, they are more likely to grab student attention and help them create more robust memories of the lesson.
While it is easier to fit in lessons in social studies into a story structure, can teachers do the same for subjects like math? Willingham says it is possible to do so by presenting students with a ‘conflict’. Thus, probability can be introduced by two friends fighting over a coin toss. Seema believes that coin is ‘loaded’ to always come up heads. Samir insists that it is just a normal coin. Will Samir and Seema be able to resolve this problem by tossing the coin 10 times in succession? Would tossing it a 100 times provide a more definitive answer?
As students move up the academic grades, knowledge becomes more abstract. However, even in higher-classes, when students are contending with abstract concepts, teachers may try to make the ideas more concrete for them. For example, the equation “force = mass x acceleration” that students learn in high school tends to be a formula that students just recite by rote and mechanistically plug in numbers while solving problems. But if the teacher asks them to visualize a ball versus a car being hit with the same force by a cricket bat, then they will appreciate how the acceleration of the ball differs from the acceleration of the car.
That a classroom consists of students with differing abilities, interests and personalities is another challenge that teachers face. As children have different cognitive profiles, many teachers believe that they need to adapt their teaching to match the “learning styles” of individual children. However, Willingham points out that there is no scientific evidence validating the benefits of teaching to children’s “learning styles”. The idea that visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners learn better when information is presented in their preferred modality is actually a myth that pervades the educational space across countries.
Instead, teachers should pick the modality that best communicates the content being taught. Thus, it makes most sense to teach students about maps by presenting them visually as opposed to auditorily, and letting students manipulate the length of the string of a pendulum to understand how the period of an oscillation is a function of the string’s length.
Finally, Willingham also reminds teachers that teaching, like any other skill, can be improved with effort and the right kind of practice. Asking other teachers to observe your teaching and provide feedback may make you uncomfortable, but the payoffs can be immense if you get one or two useful pointers that makes you a more effective teacher. Watching videos of yourself teaching and keeping a journal of experiences in the classroom can help you grow into a more reflective teacher. Remember that whatever you do as a teacher has a rub-off effect on an entire classroom of students, who, in turn, can be inspired to leave their positive imprints in this world.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com.