How can psychology help improve teaching and learning?

Pupil not enjoying schoolDespite huge advances in neuroscience over the past twenty years not much has seeped through to impact day to day learning in classrooms.  This is the problem that Daniel T Willingham Why Don’t Students Like School: A  Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom starts with in his  intriguing  new book.  He explains that the main issue is learning is memory and short term memory at that.  People just don’t have a lot of capacity in their short term memories so all learning should keep this in mind.  To overcome this teachers need to ‘chunk’ information together into pieces that can then reside in the students’ long term memories and then be called on when needed.  Chunking means combining several separate things into a single unit: so a whole word takes up the same amount of space in working memory as one letter or number.  Chunking therefore allows us to have more capacity in are working memory to use for problem solving.  The example that Willingham uses is learning the following letters:

  • XCN
  • NPH
  • DFB
  • ICI
  • ANC
  • AAX

When the same letters are reorganised to this format:

  • X
  • CNN
  • PHD
  • FBI
  • CIA
  • NCAA
  • X

All of the initials in the second list refer to organisations that American children might recognise. So their memory of the list would be much easier as they can simply rely on information already stored in their long term memories.  How we present things therefore helps understanding by helping children’s cognitive functions related to the structure of their short term memories.

The other over riding issue that teachers should be aware of is that human beings are not naturally interested in learning information that is not related to a problem they are trying to solve.  People tend to be interested in new things in the context of what they already know.  Building broad contextual knowledge is therefore a key issue for teachers and in many ways the difficulties for children are that they simply do not have much in the way of wider knowledge to draw upon.  So lessons need to be problem focused and learning should take place within the context of trying to solve a problem.  But to make this effective, first build the broader knowledge base.

Next Willingham tackles the issue of teaching  pupils skills and makes the point that skills cannot be taught in a vacuum.  They must be related to problem solving and knowledge content.  Here shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge and encouraging students to read is an essential part of all of this.  Of course student retention (memory) is always an issue.  Students remember best when there is an emotional element as well as cognitive problem solving involved, so teachers need to think about using attention grabbing techniques and to try to enable students to focus on the wider (meta cognitive) meaning of what is being taught.

Learning  can also be enhanced by using curiosity, conflict, complications and character all within the context of a story to enhance understanding.  People respond powerfully to stories, so if we use lessons as opportunities for story telling we normally see better understanding taking place.  Teachers should encourage students to become expert by simply getting them to focus on the subject nd to practice their understandings.   An expert is simply someone who has invested a great deal of time in learning about something.  We should encourage habits of work amongst students to promote expertise.

Students find abstract ideas difficult to grasp so teachers should provide concrete examples to illustrate the concept. Next teachers need to adjust their questioning techniques to encourage students to think about abstract concepts.  Too much teacher questioning is often superficial and confined to factual recall.  Yet this does not indicate if students have understood conceptually.

Somewhat controversially perhaps, Willingham argues that practising the gaining of information by drilling (repeating it) is not such a bad idea for some basic information like language sounds and number tables.

Most teachers are aware of multiple intelligence ideas and the literature about preferred learning styles (auditory, kinaesthetic and visual).  Willingham dismisses most of this as illusory and notes that ‘Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.’  So when thinking of learning styles teachers should focus on content not the students: it may help students better understand if information is presented in multiple ways such as visual and auditory.  Linked with this is the idea that intelligence is difficult to define.  There is no evidence of Gardener’s eight intelligences as being separate and distinct.  But there is growing evidence that intelligence is malleable and can change over time.  We should tell both teachers and students this fact.  However this is not the same as telling a student that they are smart. Evidence suggests that when children are told about their ability, it immediately declines.  It is far better to compliment children on  the efforts they are making.

The book contains a lot more information than has been covered here. It is the first from a research scientist that demonstrates why teaching in certain ways actually helps understanding and learning.


Chris Gerry

December 2012


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