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Notes from Why Don’t Students Like School? Chapter 1 Part 2

June 27, 2009

As a simple model for how our minds work, we have our “working memory”, which holds the stuff we are currently thinking about, and “long-term memory”, which is the storehouse of all of the factual knowledge we have about the world, both concrete and abstract.

All of the information in long-term memory resides outside of awareness. It lies quietly until it is needed, and then enters working memory and so becomes conscious. For example, if I asked you, “What color is a polar bear?” you would say, “white” almost immediately. That information was in long-term memory thirty seconds ago, but you weren’t aware of it until I posed the question that made it relevant to ongoing thought, whereupon it entered working memory.

When we combine information from our environment and long-term memory in new ways, thinking occurs. This combining happens in our working memory. How we approach solving problems, and how easily we solve them, depends on the information stored in our long-term memory. For instance, if we are given a puzzle to solve that we have not seen before, we have to use our working memory almost exclusively, both to take information from our environment–the rules and configuration of the puzzle–but also to imagine the moves to solve the puzzle. By contrast, if we have seen the puzzle before, already have information in our long-term memory about how to solve it, even if that is not foolproof.

Another example is to consider multiplying two numbers, such as 18 and 7. Not only does our long-term memory contain factual knowledge, it also contains what could be called “procedural knowledge”, which is our knowledge of the mental procedures necessary to execute tasks.

If thinking is combining information in working memory, then procedural knowledge is a list of what to combine and when–it’s like a recipe to accomplish a particular type of thought.

In sum, successful thinking relies on four factors:

  1. information from the environment
  2. facts in long-term memory
  3. procedures in long-term memory
  4. the amount of space in working memory

If any one of these factors is inadequate, thinking will likely fail.

The author suggests seven implications for teachers from this information:

  • Be sure that there are problems to be solved — that is, cognitive work that poses a moderate challenge, and be sure that
    • students understand what they are to do,
    • students are likely to be able to solve the problem, and
    • students will not simply guess what we would like them to say or do.
  • Respect students’ cognitive limits — make sure students have enough background knowledge to solve the problem, and do not overload their working memories. Overloads can be caused by
    • multistep instructions
    • lists of unconnected facts
    • chains of logic more than two or three steps long
    • the application of a just-learned concept to new material (unless the concept is quite simple)
  • Clarifying the problems to be solved — in order to engage students, it’s important to spend some time developing the key questions for that lesson that need to be answered.
  • Reconsider when to puzzle students — if an introductory demonstration is like a magic trick, it will be a momentary thrill, but the students’ curiosity to understand may not be long-lasting if they don’t have sufficient background knowledge.
  • Accept and act on variation in student preparation — giving students work that is beyond them is unlikely to help them catch up, and is likely to make them fall still further behind.
  • Change the pace — plan shifts and monitor the class’s attention.
  • Keep a diary — make a habit of recording what works and what doesn’t.
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