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In this episode, we are continuing our learning journey about thinking, memory, and why students don’t like school. We are going to be talking about Chapters 2 and 3 of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” and we will focus on the importance of background knowledge, and how we can present it in such a way that students will remember.

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bitmoji of Katie and Rachel reading atop a mushroom

Show Notes

This week, we are back and talking about the next couple of chapters of Daniel Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

We chose to put these two chapters together because chapter 2 was pretty simple, and it went really quickly, whereas chapter three gave us a lot more meat and potatoes, so to speak. It incorporates the whole theme of chapter 2, and builds from there.

If you haven’t yet listened to our first episode dedicated to this book, check out Episode 110, titled “How to Get Students Thinking.”

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 is very closely connected to chapter 1, and felt quite short. The guiding principle for this chapter is that thinking skills depend on factual knowledge. This reinforces the idea that in order to think, one needs factual knowledge. This very closely mirrors much of what we discussed in Chapter 1.

We believe that part of the reason this chapter was included separately because we, as educators, often get so caught up in teaching critical thinking, trying out new innovative practices, etc. It’s important that we take a moment, pause and make sure our students have the background knowledge to be able to do these thinks. We need to provide that knowledge so that they can engage with it.

Willingham points out that you can’t have one without the other; knowledge and thinking need to be developed in parallel. And how knowledge is acquired is also important. Students can’t just Google it and be expected to process and interact with this knowledge in order to remember and recall it at a later date.

With that in mind, Willingham included this Chapter to force us to focus on that fact that we need to actually teach knowledge in order to do the rest of it. There was also some great discussions around working memory, what you can keep there, and how limited the capacity is. One way to expand working memory is to chunk factual knowledge and ideas so that it is easier to remember it all in pieces.

Willingham also took the time to talk about knowledge gaps. If students begin to fall behind in reading comprehension skills, etc. then as everybody else forges ahead throughout the grades, this gap in knowledge continues to steadily grow. Those who have knowledge continue to acquire knowledge quickly, and those who don’t are at a deficit that will continue to grow unless we focus on filling those gaps and building these skills.

In order for students to be able to problem solve effectively, or to think like scientists, they need to have background knowledge that will build problem solving, and help students to build expectations around certain lab results, problems, etc. From there, students can anticipate a result that is unexpected, or not fitting their theory. None of this is possible with out background knowledge.

Chapter 3

This chapter had quite the witty name to it: Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say? This really captured our attention because there’s a lot of truth to it. The guiding principle is that memory is the residue of thought.

Throughout the chapter, Willingham talks about all of the random things that he knows that he’ll never put to use, and then all of the things that he always has to look up because he can’t remember them! We both really related to this, as it’s a reality in our own lives as well.

For example, song lyrics and melodies. Somehow, our brains have managed to store away so many different lyrics and melodies, and they’ll randomly come to us mid-conversation. Even jingles from old commercials often come to mind from a single word, phrase, or even a couple of song notes.

This chapter is all about why this happens, and what’s going on in our brains and our memories to bring about that learning. It’s also about how we approach different kinds of situations or stimuli, and things that are going on around us, and how we think about those things. This interaction determines how we remember things.

Memory is the residue of thought

Going back to this guiding principle, it’s important to remember that when learning, what you are actually thinking about is what is going to stick in your memory. Sometimes, it might not be what you have designed, such as an assignment or something that your students are working on.

With this in mind, he opens up the chapter with an example that a teacher may experience while walking down the hallway. How the teacher recalls that event is dependent on what they picked up on: the emotions that student was experiencing, the words they were using, the physical frustration they were showing when they couldn’t open their locker, etc. What a person notices is going to be different person to person, which means our memories of one moment in time may be different as a result.

Using this knowledge, we need to think carefully about what we want our students to think about when learning a new concept or lesson. What are the questions we are asking, are the goals of the lesson or activity clear and purposeful? Do we provide the knowledge they require to be able to think about and answer these overarching questions?

We also need to be careful of the kinds of hooks that we use to capture our students’ attention. Some hooks might be entertaining and capture students’ interest, but are they actually able to think about and process these situations? If they don’t have the background knowledge to explain that explosion or fun hook activity, then students may not remember enough details beyond the entertainment factor.

Willingham also takes some time to dive into characteristics of good/effective teachers. He states that an effective or good teacher may be nice – able to make good connections with students, well organized, and able to make learning interesting and easy to understand.

This connection that teachers have, it could be a sense of humour as a way of engaging with students; it could be empathy and caring, and always trying to make sure students are okay; it could also be the teacher as a storyteller, someone who can effectively tell a story and get students engaged and interested; and lastly, it could be the show person, someone who likes being flashy, and can get students engaged while also engaging with the content itself.

He goes on to talk about how stories in general capture people’s attention. Stories have four main points; the 4 Cs: Causality, Conflict, Complications, Character. All of these points or factors make up good stories, and people know and understand the structure of stories.

Using the 4Cs and the structure of stories, he then gives examples of how this can be implemented in a variety of subject-area classrooms. This was such an effective method of explaining the concept since it isn’t always clear how it fits in every classroom.

One resource worth mentioning is called “Storyworthy: Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life Through the Power of Storytelling” by Matthew Dicks. This is a resource that was shared with Rachel by the Director or Education at our Board. If you are thinking of, or are interested in, storytelling and implementing it in your classroom, check it out.

Bitmoji of Katie and Rachel. Rachel has a ribbon tied around her finger. Text: "Don't Forget!"

In this chapter, Willingham also discusses how at times, you may want to flip the perspective of a particular lesson. Sometimes, the way we normally teach something doesn’t fit nicely into the story structure, so we need to look at it from a different angle to help it make more sense for students. For example, in a history classroom, you may approach an event in history through the perspective of a different party involved in that event versus the traditional perspective of your own nation.

Towards the end of the chapter, he also talks about how, sometimes, there are things you just need to memorize, and they can’t be learned in a story or lesson. It could be vocabulary words, specific facts, etc. He shares a lot about mnemonics and different memorization tools to help students remember these pieces of information. Examples are acronyms, using music or rhythms, etc. With each of these memorization tools, he provides pros and cons to help you understand how some are effective, but how they may not be effective as well.

This section was great because he is acknowledging that memorization is helpful and needs to be done for some knowledge.

Classroom Implications

At the end of the Chapter, he shares a variety of classroom implications that are super helpful for educators.

Here are a few that stood out to us:

  • Is the thinking on the lesson or assignment, or is it on something flashy, like technology?
    • Podcasting, technology tools and features, etc. are great, but make sure that learning how to use these tools is done prior to a task or assignment
  • Use discovery learning with care
    • If students are discovering something, if it’s incorrect, it may be difficult for them replace the incorrect answer with the correct piece of information – make sure students have all of the background knowledge that they have to do it correctly
  • Try organizing a lesson plan around the conflict
    • Conflicts tend to be the interesting part for a lot of our students – could bring about natural engagement and thinking
  • Think carefully about the use of attention grabbers
    • Make sure the students’ focus is on the story and conflict – waiting to ensure they have the knowledge that will allow them focus on solving the problem or answering the question

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