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Notes from Why Don’t Students Like School? Chapter 1 Part 1

May 19, 2009

I found this pretty fascinating:

Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very goot at thinking. Thinking is slow and unreliable. People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems.

Humans are good at certain typese of reasoning, particularly in comparison to other animals, but we exercise those abilities infrequently. Your brain serves many purposes, and thinking is not the one it serves best. Your brain also supports the ability to see and to move, for example, and these functions operate much more efficiently and reliably than your ability to think. It’s not accident that most of your brain’s real estate is devoted to these activities. The extra brain power is needed because seeing is actually more difficult than playing chess or solving calculus problems.

Five dollars will get you a calculator that can perform simple calculations faster and more accurately than any human can. With fifty dollars you can buy chess software that can defeat more than 99 percent of the world’s population. But the most powerful computer on the planet can’t drive a truck. Tasks that you take for granted–for example, walking on a rocky shore where the footing is uncertain–are much more difficult than playing top-level chess. No computer can do it.

According to the author, thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain, especially compared with our visual system. We do not have to analyze what we see–we take in the whole scene, completely, and without really concentrating on it. If we make a mistake in something we see, we are usually not that far off, unlike what can happen trying to solve a problem. If thinking is such hard work, then, how do we cope? The author’s answer is that when we can get away with it, we don’t actually think at all–we rely on memory.

Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past. Just as your visual system takes in a scene and, without any effort on your part, tells you what is in the environment, so too your memory system immediately and effortlessly recognizes that you’ve heard the problem before and provides the answer. You may think you have a terrible memory, and it’s true that your memory system is not as reliable as your visual or movement system–sometimes you forget, sometimes you think you remember when you don’t–but your memory system is much more reliable than your thinking system, and it provides answers quickly and with little effort. For the vast majority of decisions we make, we don’t stop to consider what we might do, reason about it, anticipate possible consequences, and so on. When you feel as though you are “on autopilot,” even if you’re doing something rather complex, such as driving home from school, it’s because you are using memory to guide your behavior. Using memory doesn’t require much of your attention, so you are free to daydream, even as you’re stopping at red lights, passing cars, watching for pedestrians, and so on.

You are biased to use memory to guide your actions rather than to think. But your brain doesn’t leave it there; it is capable of changing in order to save you from having to think. If you repeat the same thought-demanding task againi and again, it will eventually become automatic; your brain will change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it.

The implications for education sound rather grim. If people are bad at thinking and try to avoid it, what does that say about students’ attitudes toward school? Fortunately, the story doesn’t end with people stubbornly refusing to think. Despite the fact that we’re not that good at it, we actually like to think. We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought. But because thinking is so hard, the conditions have to be right for this curiousity to thrive, or we quit thinking rather readily.

When you solve a problem, your brain may reward itself with a small dose of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical that is important to the brain’s pleasure system. It’s notable too that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating. Then too, there’s not great pleasure in simply knowing [or being told] the answer. Even if someone doesn’t tell you the answer to a problem, once you’ve had too many hints you lose the sense that you’ve solved the problem, and getting the answer doesn’t bring the same mental snap of satisfaction.

Mental work appeals to us because it offers the opportunity for that pleasant feeling when it succeeds. But not all types of thinking are equally attractive. We are curious about some stuff but not about other stuff, [b]ut I don’t think content drives interest. The answer may lie in the difficulty of the problem. If we get a little burst of pleasure from solving a problem, then there’s no point in working on a problem that is too easy–there’ll be no pleasure when it’s solved because it didn’t feel like much of a problem in the first place. Then too, when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you’re unlikely to solve it, and are therefore unlikely to get the satisfaction that comes with the solution.

This analysis of the sorts of mental work that people seek out or avoid also provides one answer to why more students don’t like school. Working on problems that are of the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant. Students can’t opt out of these problems the way adults often can. If the student routinely gets work that is a bit too difficult, it’s little wonder that he doesn’t care much for school.

So what’s the solution? Give the student easier work? You could, but of course you’d have to be careful not to make it so easy that the student would be bored. Andy anyway, wouldn’t it be better to boost the student’s ability a little bit? Instead of making the work easier, is it possible to make thinking easier?

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