Ha Ha Daniel Willingham!

One of the books that I often refer to in my writing and presentations is the book, “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham.  Willingham is a neuroscientist with an interest in education and his book combines the latest findings of neuroscience with his take on the relevance of those insights for teaching and learning practices.  I have to admit, I like his neuroscience better than his insights into professional practices.  One of the points that Willingham makes that I find particularly  annoying, is that students are not capable of knowledge construction.  They are capable of knowledge comprehension but not able to construct knowledge.  Those of you who work with us know that we are enamored of the work of Fred Newmann, formerly of the University of Wisconsin, on rich, authentic learning one characteristic of which is involving students in learning experiences in which they construct knowledge.  Willingham posits that non-experts need to be taught and understand algorithms in mathematics, for example, but lack the expertise to create an algorithm, which would be knowledge construction.  Willingham says, ” A student may not be able to develop his own (algorithm) , but he can develop a deep understanding of existing (algorithms).”This seems like a small point, but taken to an extreme, as it has been in a variety of educational blogs and comments, it has been used as a support for more didactic, traditional teaching and an excuse for not involving students in authentic work similar to that done be experts.

I was quite pleased when I read about a powerful new learning technique  called perceptual learning. Perceptual learning is a strategy that builds on the pattern-recognizing tendencies of the brain. In one study in Pennsylvania described in a New York Times article here, for example, students learned to add and subtract fractions, not by having a teacher do a step-by-step lesson, but by sitting at a computer “slicing and dicing” fractional objects and developing strategies for adding and subtracting fractional parts independently.  In an assessment used as part of a formal study, students who learned in this way outperformed students who learned fraction skills through direct instruction by 73% to 25%.

This may seem like a small point, but the cognitive science related to topics like perceptual learning and deep learning, a topic for another time, suggest strongly that “stand and deliver” teaching is often not the best away for students to learn.


Written by Ed Coughlin

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