Teachers are key for students who like learning and remain curious

People are naturally curious, so why is school such a chore for so many kids? University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham set out to learn why in his new book, Why Don't Students Like School?Part of the answer, he finds, is that thinking can be just plain hard. Unless conditions are right, we'll actually try to avoid the process of thinking. A teacher's challenge, the author says, is to "maximize the likelihood that students will get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought." The author chats about the learning process.

Q: After all we've learned about the mind and brain, why is it so difficult to make school enjoyable for students?

A: School is all about mental challenge, and that is hard work, make no mistake. Still, people do enjoy mental work or, more exactly, people enjoy successful mental work. We get a snap of satisfaction when we solve a problem. But solving a problem that is trivially easy is not fun. Neither is hammering away at a problem with no sense you are making progress.

So the challenge for a teacher is to find that sweet spot of mental difficulty, and to find it simultaneously for 25 students, each with a different level of preparation. To fight this problem, teachers must engage each student with work that is appropriate for his or her level of preparation. This must be done sensitively, so that students who are behind don't feel like second-class citizens. But the fact is they are behind, and pretending that they are not does them no favors.

Q: You say that "Memory is the residue of thought." Why do we remember what we remember?


A: It would be great if you simply remembered what you wanted to remember; you'd remember everyone's name at parties, and you'd never misplace your keys. But obviously memory doesn't work that way. Rather, we remember what we think about, and that can have non-obvious consequences. During frog dissection, are students thinking about anatomy or that they find it gross?

One way to help ensure that students think of content is to view teaching in terms of a story structure. Stories draw us in (and are easy to remember) because they constantly pose small, solvable mental problems that invite us to interpret the action and predict what will happen next: Why is Scarlett marrying Charles when she doesn't love him? How will E.T. get home?

Q: So what do good teachers do on a daily basis to help kids remember the important things in lessons?

A: Good teachers design lessons in which students unavoidably think about the meaning or central point. For example, from the American perspective, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came out of the blue; this disconnection makes it hard to understand and remember. From the Japanese perspective, the attack is more logical and therefore memorable. Japan was engaged in a lengthy war with China and needed raw materials. These materials could be had in European colonies south of Japan, but the United States was a major naval power in the Pacific. Among several options (the wisdom of which students could debate), Japan chose to try to wipe out American naval power.

Q: Ninety percent of people think they're either a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner. What does that mean? And why do you say that they are wrong?

A: The idea is that people have different ways of learning the same material, or learning styles. A visual learner understands and remembers better by seeing, an auditory learner by hearing, and a kinesthetic learner by touching and manipulating. This idea has been tested repeatedly in the last 50 years and it doesn't work. People differ in their abilities and in their interests, but there is no evidence for differences in learning styles.

Q: You say that intelligence is much more malleable than most people believe. How can we all get smarter?

A: Until about 20 years ago, most scientists thought that intelligence was mostly inherited, and that the environment's impact was limited. Important findings supporting this view came from studies of identical twins who were separated at birth. Even though adopted into different families, they usually showed very similar intelligence, which indicated that genes dominated.

Now scientists think that those early studies underestimated the effect of the environment. First, adoptive families probably don't vary that much — they are generally supportive and emphasize success in school. Second, other data have shown that moving kids from low-quality to high-quality schools boosts IQ scores.

The secret to getting smarter is really not a big secret: Engage in intellectual activities. Read the newspaper, watch informative documentaries, find well-written books that make intellectual content engaging. Perhaps most important; Watch less television. It's rarely enriching, and it's an enormous time-sink.

Just as exercise experts advise many small changes rather than a vigorous program (which will likely be dropped), I think the best way to get smarter is to put a little more learning into every day. The trick is to develop the habit of looking for those opportunities.


By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY