Students Don’t Like to Think, But Who Does?

A couple of years ago, I was leading an activity in one of my science classes.  I don’t remember what the activity was, but I recall asking my class a question which they seemed stumped by.  Then I said, “Well, think about it.”  One student called back, “We don’t like to think!”  It wasn’t funny at the time, but I have learned to laugh about her comment, and I’ve told the story several times since, as evidence of the modern student’s mindset.

It turns out, research supports my student’s statement.  According to Daniel Willingham, cognitive psychologist and author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, none of us likes to think.  It’s because our brains are not designed for thinking, and in fact are designed to avoid thinking.  This explains why I turn right at the end of my driveway every morning when I take my dog and myself out for a walk and then turn right again when I reach the corner.  I don’t want to think about which direction to go at each corner or intersection, so I follow the same route for those 1.75 miles each day.  And surprisingly, I always end up back at my front door 25 or 30 minutes  later, even without thinking about it.  That’s not to say I haven’t been thinking while I walked, but I reserve my morning thinking capacity for planning my day.

According to Willingham, most of our daily activities are accomplished through the power of our memories.  We remember how to get to work and how to get home.  We take the same route, and by and large, we arrive at the same time each day.  It’s all thanks to having laid down memories, which required original thought once, but no more.  We operate mostly on autopilot.  This is one reason we get more efficient at frequently performed tasks–we don’t have to spend time or energy thinking about them.  It’s actually a pretty nifty arrangement.

Another of Willingham’s points, and one that provides a solution to the challenge of prodding students to think, perhaps against their inclinations, is that solving problems brings deep enjoyment.  If a problem is too easy, there’s no challenge or satisfaction in solving it.  If a problem is too difficult, a student is likely to give up.  This is the lesson for me as a teacher.  If I want my students to really think–and learn as a result–I need to encourage students to do the thinking necessary to solve problems that are Goldilocks approved (in other words, just right).

This is only one of many insights provided in Willingham’s thought-provoking book, my favorite kind of read.  Hey, does this make me an anomaly?  I actually like to think.  Stay tuned for more.

6 thoughts on “Students Don’t Like to Think, But Who Does?

  1. Problem solving can be very stimulating and satisfying. When I run out of real problems, a Sudoku will do. Life is a long process of solution-seeking. Which makes me wonder…are there no problems in heaven to solve? That would not be heaven to me (and most guys).

  2. I sometimes hate to think how much of my life is spent on autopilot. The move to PA was good for both of us on this score I think – we’ve definitely had to engage the old attentions more since everything was unfamiliar. Does all that stuff that goes on in my head while I’m in bed but not sleeping count as thinking? If so, I “think” I’m brilliant!!

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