Applying the Concepts of Willingham’s ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’ to STEM Subjects

Applying the Concepts of Why Students Don’t Like School to STEM Subjects

Child & Adolescent Development Class
Chris Holland
July 26, 2013

The concepts expounded upon in Why Students Don’t Like School are deeply interesting, well-supported abstractions that are expertly illustrated through practical examples. It adapts a multitude of theories and makes them accessible and relevant to the classroom teacher. To excise any of the concepts it lays out would be to diminish the invaluable body of knowledge it represents. I will confine the focus of this essay to the concepts most relevant and readily applicable to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects. As the existence of the acronym implies, these subjects are inextricably linked and should therefore be taught by way of a cross-curricular approach.

In response to Question 3, What makes something stick in memory and what will likely slip away?, Willingham instructs teachers to pay careful attention to what avenues and processes of thought a particular assignment will promote. He also stresses the importance of keeping good notes about how it actually plays out: What aspects of the content were difficult for the students? Was the class adequately front-loaded with knowledge? What misconceptions had to be addressed? Too often, he warns, teachers assume that they will remember their internal reflections on lessons that are revisited the next year. As valuable as inquiry-based learning is in all subjects, it is the essence of scientific study. STEM teachers have a significant advantage to encourage students to subscribe to the notion that school exists as a place of excitement and discovery, rather than boredom and drudgery. But we can’t release our students to explore unaided and lost in action.

To foster the inquisitive minds scientific investigation demands, we have to model and guide the inquiry-based approach to learning. As Willingham points out, unless student inquiry is managed, they may explore unprofitable mental paths. And since memory is residual thought, students’ memories of scientifically-accepted concepts will then be clouded with their unguided ones. Inquiry learning can involve a wide range of freedom and one must consider both the level of independence of the students and their background knowledge in a given content area when deciding exactly how much freedom students should be granted. Teachers must also carefully consider the particular point in the course of study of a particular area to incorporate the inquiry component. Of course, demonstrations can serve as powerful ‘hook,’ but what good is a hook if it distracts students from the train of thought the lesson is intended to encourage? Teachers must provide a clear connection between the attention-grabber and the point it’s meant to illustrate or introduce. Perhaps it is often better to consider inquiry as an intermediary step of the learning process or even a culminating event to a unit than an introduction. Another alternative is to revisit a demonstration once students are better equipped to formulate and test hypotheses. The class could repeatedly return to the same basic situation but with increasingly complex phenomena or approach it with increasingly accurate approaches as skills and knowledge are gained. This approach is in line with Willingham’s suggestion of understanding new ideas by bringing “right old, familiar ideas into working memory and then rearranging them.” New ideas build on existing ones, so teachers must monitor and guide students to make sure they are bringing the correct familiar ideas from their long-term memories into their working memories. Further still, they must pay attention to the right aspects of their memories and then compare, combine, or manipulate them as needed. The aforementioned methods should be applied variably so that students get the practice they need (experience via lots of examples) to transfer their knowledge and skills to the world outside of textbooks and classrooms.

The story-related conflict is something I’ve already taken full advantage of in my math classes. It is an approach I found to be intuitive (I mean, why wouldn’t students be more interested in the average speed of one of their classmate’s eventful scooter rides to the bikini-girl-laden beach than that of some nameless person’s walk between points A and B?), but I see it stressed and rationalized throughout my studies in education. Willingham pointed out that if students are familiar with the context, less of their working memory is consumed by such elements and more of it is available for higher-order critical thinking. In this way, we can reduce the tendency for students to feel overwhelmed when studying new concepts. Then, once students are familiar with the concepts, we can expose students to new contexts in which these concepts can be applied. By using their deductive powers in a variety of surface structures (Question 4: Why do we find abstract ideas so difficult, and so difficult to apply when expressed in new ways?), students are enabled to induce generalizations of the deep structure for the particular type of problem while satisfying the need for familiar, concrete examples. Then it is easier for them to recognize the deep structure amid a diverse set of problems.

Another critical principle outlined in the book (Question 5, Does the cognitive benefit of drill make it worth the potential cost to motivation?) is that it is virtually impossible to be cognitively proficient without extended and varied practice. The more concepts and knowledge we internalize in our long-term memories, the greater our ability to tackle more complex problems. “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Internalization of math rules is another form of chunking (chapter 2) that can free up mental working space. Sometimes mnemonics can be a useful tool to internalize arbitrary rules (ex: BEDMAS – brackets, exponents, division/multiplication, addition/subtraction). Once the proper order of operations is established in your mind, the processing power of your brain is freed to address more complex concepts and calculations. In other words, the more we practice a skill, the greater the degree to which it is automatized. Once a skill is automatized, the space it takes up becomes negligible. A useful example of this is learning to navigate a keyboard. Once the skill is internalized, very little of your working memory is expended recalling where the keys are. STEM teachers should take note that practicing math facts is a proven method of enabling low-achieving students to perform better in advanced math.

Extended practice is a necessary step in further learning should be done over time and not limited to particular units of study. We retain more of what we learn over longer periods of time than we do while cramming. As Willingham notes, we can “fold practice into more advanced skills.” This approach allows students to master a skill in the context of more advanced skills. Practice leads to mastery; further practice leads to transference to novel situations; further practice still provides the foundation for further learning – and protects against forgetting.

The ideas and examples discussed in this book made be reflect on all my instruction practices. Armed with the approaches Willingham outlined, STEM teachers – myself included – are sure to be more effective in their craft.