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In this episode, we are talking all about learning and how to structure learning so that it transfers to new situations. We are returning to “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham, and will be discussing chapters 4-6, all about transferring learning.

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Show Notes

This week, we are chatting a bit more about Daniel Willingham’s book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” We figured we would tackle chapters 4, 5 and 6 since they are closely related, and then share about classroom implications.

If you want to get caught up on our previous two episodes about the book, then check these out:

Chapter 4

The guiding principle for this chapter is: “we understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.” This makes so much sense when we think about language learning (and how we use our first language to help us make sense of new languages), as well as learning new things in general!

It was a fascinating chapter because it’s all about the brain and how we think and learn new things. We take all of the things that we know, and we try to adapt or fit new learning into these areas.

Rachel and Katie both made connections to their masters programs and the learning they did (or are doing in Katie’s case) for their courses. They are both quite grateful that they didn’t pursue their Masters immediately out of school, because it gave them time to be in the classroom and to get experience teaching and working with students. It really helped them to make more meaningful connections between their learning and professional experience.

While reading this chapter, Rachel also connected it to other books and resources that she has read to improve her practice. One such book is called “Learning That Transfers” by Julie Stern. In this resource, they discuss the ACT model for developing learning and lessons, and the stages that students go through to learn. ‘A’ stands for acquire, ‘C’ stands for connect, and ‘T’ stands for transfer. You need to have different activities in this logical progression in order to build up to that transfer of knowledge.

The premise of this chapter is that students will understand new ideas by relating them to old ideas. The use of analogies is one way in which we can help students to relate new knowledge to something that they already know, as long as it is something that students are familiar with, and as long as concrete examples are provided.

I think that this is a fairly important reminder, and one that has been a big part of discussions since covid arrived. We talk often about getting to know our students, and finding ways to get them to access their background knowledge and lived experiences in the classroom. This really speaks to this chapter because we need to know our students, and we need to know what they know in order to teach them in a meaningful way.

There was one quote from the chapter that really stuck out to both Rachel and Katie.

“Understanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas into working memory and then rearranging them – making comparisons we hadn’t made before, or thinking about a feature we had previously ignored”

page 99, “Why Don’t Students Like School” by Daniel Willingham

With this in mind, we need to think about how we then build our lessons or activities in order to bring out these correct old ideas for students to then use to understand new concepts. It really is about combining things we already have in our memory and thinking about them in new ways.

Willingham does a great job of providing examples throughout the chapter (and the other chapters, too!). These real life examples really gets the reader to understand the concepts through these examples, putting it into practice.

Throughout the chapter, Willingham also talks about shallow versus deep knowledge, and what the differences are. He also discusses rote knowledge, which is the ability to give the right answer, typically word for word. Students being able to recall this rote knowledge does not actually mean that a students is thinking or that they have a deep understanding.

Shallow knowledge, is some understanding of a concept, but it’s very limited. With shallow knowledge, students are able to understand or explain something, but only in the context in which it was taught or explained.

Deep knowledge, on the other hand, is being able to know more about a subject, and to see the connections between different situations. Students are then able to use that knowledge in a new context.

When thinking about these different kinds of knowledge, it makes us think about word problems, for example word problems in math. When students only have rote or shallow knowledge, the use of word problems and shifting the contexts in these problems can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for students.

Building deep knowledge requires a lot of practice and a lot of time. Practice will help students to take some of their knowledge and apply it to a new problem.

Willingham also talks about surface and deep structure. Surface structure is the context or examples that we use to teach or demonstrate knowledge. Deep structure is the actual knowledge. In terms of math problems, the deep structure is the math itself, and the surface structure is the situation we create for that math problem.

Students tend to get hung up by the surface structure and trying to make sense of the word that they’re looking at and/or the scenario that is being presented, so that they can’t see through to the math.

The concept of surface and deep structures was one of the biggest takeaways in terms of classroom implications.

It also was a good reminder that we need to make sure that our expectations for deep knowledge is realistic, because we need to understand that students have to progress from no knowledge, to developing shallow knowledge, to then developing deep knowledge; it isn’t going to happen right away, and we need to provide scaffolds as we go.

Another consideration is the use of multiple examples. If we want to help students comprehend these new concepts that they are learning, then we have to give them multiple examples, different scenarios, and we need to get them thinking about where to find the concepts or knowledge in these problems and scenarios. It’s more important that we can get them to think through the examples to see the parallels and where the new concepts or knowledge can be found. Getting the answers doesn’t have to be the priority right away.

Chapter 5

This chapter is called “Is Drilling Worth It?” and the guiding principle is “it is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.”

At one point in this chapter, Willingham talks about how people with more working memory capacity are better thinkers; we have to use our working memory to make sense of new things, so if there is too much demand on our working memory, then we are not very efficient. The idea of drilling and practicing is so that we don’t have to use as much of our working memory because we have proceduralized our knowledge to move it to our long-term memory.

He also talks about using methods such as chunking to help us to proceduralize words, terms, phrases, expressions, etc. and move it to our long term memory. Then, this knowledge is easily accessible as a unit, and we don’t require our working memory.

When considering what we need our students to practice, we need to determine what we want our students to be able to recall with minimal effort. Then, they can use that when processing other information.

Within practice, Willingham also discusses studying and cramming, which we found a bit funny. Katie was definitely a student that crammed the night before evaluations in high school. And while cramming can lead to great results in the short term, that knowledge does not become proceduralized, and does not get retained in long-term memory. So, if you are looking for long term learning, cramming is not the way to go! Instead, space out studying over a longer period of time, as that leads to long term acquisition.

Overlearning is when you continue to study something after you are able to recall it, and is used as protection against forgetting things. So if there is vocabulary or concepts that you know, but don’t want to forget, continuing to study these concepts will help ensure that you do not forget it over time.

Practice and drilling will improve transfer of knowledge. The more students practice, the more they will start to be able to identify the deep structures of problems. This then leads to deeper knowledge.

In terms of classroom implications from this chapter, one of the biggest takeaways was the idea of spacing out practice, and making sure we provide students with opportunities to practice in our classrooms.

Chapter 6

The guiding principle for this chapter is that “cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition in late training.” This is such a great reminder that it isn’t realistic for teachers to expect students to think and create like experts, because they just aren’t experts!

We want our students to develop critical thinking skills that experts uses, but we also need to recognize that they don’t yet have the knowledge to be able to think that way.

Willingham also uses science and the use of labs as an example in this chapter. He talks about how educators set up labs in such a way that the outcome is predictable; students are aware of the outcome, which guides them in completing the appropriate steps to achieve it. Experts, on the other hand, don’t know what the outcome is going to be during a lab. They may have a hypothesis, but there is not step-by-step procedure for them to follow that ensures a specific result. And sometimes, the unexpected result is what drives experts to figure out what it means, and to use their deeper knowledge to make sense of it.

Students are not exposed to this yet at this stage of their education, and they are still working on building knowledge, and proceduralizing knowledge to minimize the impact or demand on their working memory. Our job is to help them to build that knowledge and to provide some authentic opportunities to think through problems, but we need to guide them. They can’t think like experts because they aren’t experts, and it’s going to take time and practice to help them move towards these goals.

In this chapter, there’s also a comparison of a new teacher in classroom management versus an experienced teacher. The experienced teacher is much more aware of what is happening around them because they have a deeper understanding of that background knowledge, of the pedagogy, and different classroom management strategies. Some of this has become automatic over the years, and has become a part of our background knowledge.

An additional point of interest was the discussion of how experts think, vs how novices think. Experts tend to cluster things together, or think in terms of functions or deep structure, whereas novices are basically just trying to figure out the surface level of the problem, and are not at a point where they are trying to analyze the problem.

In terms of classroom implications from this chapter, the biggest takeaway was that we need to take a moment and understand that students are at a stage where they’re ready to understand knowledge, but not create knowledge. They can understand the basic, underlying principles, and the results that they get from a lab or experiment, but they can’t actually take unpredictable outcomes and come up with new theories in order to explain something that they’ve seen. With that in mind, we can’t expect novices to learn by doing what experts do.

The chapter was a good way to remind and ground teachers in the knowledge that we are teaching novices; we are not dealing with experts. We have lofty goals for our students, which is great, as high expectations for all students is such an important aspect of teaching, however we need to shift them towards more realistic expectations. We have to help our students to build up knowledge and to understand how to make sense of the world around them.

Just because students can’t create like experts, it doesn’t mean that they can’t create. While these creations may not be the best or may not demonstrate expert knowledge, it’s still good practice. Creating gets students thinking; gets them analyzing; and it gets them using their new knowledge and trying new things. Practice makes progress.

If you haven’t already, consider picking up this amazing resource and reading more about how students think, and how we can support students!

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