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Subject:

Well, Bloom me! Why Don't Students Like School

From:

Dan Kern <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Open Forum for Learning Assistance Professionals <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 15 Jun 2009 07:24:22 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (220 lines)

Why Don't Students Like School?


by Daniel T. <http://www.tcrecord.org/AuthorDisplay.asp?aid=21051>
Willingham - April 07, 2009

This commentary summarizes recent work in cognitive psychology on interest
to explain why it is that people like to learn new things, but often say
that they don't like school. 

Ask ten high school students whether they like to learn new things. Most
will say "yes." Now ask them whether they like school and most will say
"no." Why the inconsistency? 

 

A cognitive psychologist's point of view can help to resolve this dilemma.
First, although most people believe that humans are good at thinking, it is
actually the weakest of our mental faculties. (I'm defining "thinking"
broadly as mental work, for example, reading a poem, doing your taxes,
evaluating an interpretation of historical events, or sizing up an
investment opportunity.) Our minds are biased against thinking, because
thinking is slow and effortful. In addition, it's error-prone; it may not
even produce an answer at all, much less a good one. 

 

Our ability to remember, in contrast, is rapid, effortless, and much more
reliable. That is why memory is the mental process of first resort.  When
confronted with a problem, we will usually consult memory to see whether we
have solved it (or a similar one) before. If so, and if the solution was
satisfactory, we are likely to use that solution again. For example, when
planning a 100-mile trip to visit a friend, one could turn the task into a
bracing cognitive challenge, poring over maps, considering which route
offers the least traffic, best scenery, most convenient gas stations, and so
on. But more likely one will rely on memory and simply take the route used
before. Teachers are confronted with a roomful of students whose minds are
not designed for thinking, but for saving them from having to think.

 

So how do we square this apparent bias not to think with people's claim that
they like to learn new things? In fact people do spend their leisure time in
activities that require thought: solving Sudoku puzzles, reading challenging
fiction, and so on. The resolution to this apparent contradiction is that
people like to work on problems if they solve them. Solving problems brings
pleasure, a snap of satisfaction. But there is no pleasure in working at a
difficult problem with the feeling that you're not making progress. And
solving a trivially easy problem-for example, an adult solving a child's
crossword puzzle-is no better. That's not really solving a problem, it's
just pulling facts from memory. For mental work to bring pleasure, the right
level of difficulty is crucial. 

 

The solvable puzzle lies at the heart of a theory of reading and interest
proposed by Kintsch (1980). Although other theories had suggested that
novelty and surprise arouse interest (e.g., Schank, 1979), Kintsch
emphasized that an event must not merely be unpredictable; it must be
postdictable. That is, it must initially be surprising, but then be
understandable with a bit of thought. Thus, two friends attending an
avant-garde concert may be equally baffled by the music initially, but the
more musically knowledgeable person may come to understand the composer's
intent, and will thus find the music more interesting than her friend who is
merely puzzled. 

 

This hypothesis has been elaborated by Silvia (2008), who suggested that
interest is engendered by an appraisal process: that is, a process by which
we evaluate the potential interest of something before we delve into it. If
we perceive an event to be novel and complex, but also comprehensible, we
find it intriguing and worthy of continued thought. Tasks that lack
complexity seem too easy. Tasks that lack comprehensibility seem too hard. 

 

Note that this discussion of interest has omitted content. That may seem
odd-when we describe our interests, we usually focus on content: "I'm into
opera," or "British history fascinates me." Indeed, some psychological
theories of interest (e.g., Schiefele, 1999) refer to content and it is
likely that content moderates interest. But it must be admitted that
interest varies within the same person from situation to situation. I am
interested in cognitive psychology, but I certainly find myself bored at
some talks during professional conferences. And we've all had the experience
of watching a documentary on a subject that we thought didn't interest us,
only to find ourselves fascinated. 

 

This analysis gives us a new perspective on what it means for something to
be "interesting." When confronted by a new problem we rapidly size it up for
difficulty: with a bit of effort, am I likely to get that little jolt of
pleasure that comes from solving a problem? If the problem is too hard or
too easy, the answer is "no" and we are unlikely to work at it for long.
People say they like to learn new things because understanding new things
(and other forms of successful problem solving) brings pleasure. They often
say they don't like school, however, because it is difficult to arrange
things so that all students in a classroom experience a series of mental
challenges of the right complexity. 

 

Can school be made more interesting? The framework described here suggests
three measures. First, teachers must be sure that students understand the
problems to be solved. Especially in this age of accountability, there is a
temptation for classwork to become a series of answers. Learning answers in
the absence of well-framed questions is not interesting. Second, it probably
will not be effective to rely on a single question to propel interest for
more than ten minutes or so. Teachers might take a lesson from narrative
structure. Writers going back to Aristotle (trans. 1997) have recognized
that the interest of readers (or viewers of plays) is transitory, and that
even though a plot may be driven by a primary question (will Scarlett and
Rhett find love?), there must be complications, subplots, to maintain
interest. So too, a lesson plan may have a primary question to be answered,
but well-paced complications as the students explore possible solutions will
help maintain interest. Third, teachers must be aware of and act on
variations in student preparation (maybe, learning to listen to the
student's background of knowledge combined with the student's background of
experience?). The "sweet spot" of problem difficulty will vary across
students, and within a student, across subjects. 

 

In truth, we likely flatter ourselves when we say that we like to learn new
things. Do we seize every opportunity to learn something new? More likely,
we enjoy learning new things under the right circumstances. Our emerging
understanding of what sparks interest can help teachers better create those
circumstances in the classroom and so increase students' liking for and
motivation in school. 

 

 

References

 

Aristotle (trans. 1997). Poetics (M. Heath, Trans.) New York: Penguin.

 

Kintsch, W. (1980). Learning from text, levels of comprehension, or: Why
anyone would read a story anyway. Poetics, 9, 87-98.

 

Schank, R. C. (1979) Interestingness: Controlling inferences. Artificial
Intelligence, 12, 273-297.

 

Schiefele, U. (1999). Interest and learning from text. Scientific Study of
Reading, 3, 257-280. 

 

Silvia, P. J. (2008). Interest-the curious emotion. Current Directions in
Psychological Science, 17, 57-60. 

 

 

 


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 07,
2009
http://www.tcrecord.org <http://www.tcrecord.org/Home.asp>  ID Number:
15609, Date Accessed: 6/15/2009 8:13:09 AM

Source:  http://www.tcrecord.org/PrintContent.asp?ContentID=15609

Rootage:  http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=15609

 

 

 

Dan Kern

AD21, Reading

East Central College

1964 Prairie Dell Road

Union, MO  63084-4344

Phone:  (636) 583-5195

Extension:  2426

Fax:  (636) 584-0513

Email:  [log in to unmask]

 

Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner. Put

yourself in his place so that you may understand what he learns and

the way he understands it. (Kierkegaard)

 

 


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