Monday, November 15, 2010

Super Summary, Part 4, p. 86 - 126

Why Students Don’t Like School
by Daniel T. Willingham
Part Four, p. 86 - 126

    Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?  The author begins this section stating the fact that the mind prefers concrete ideas, and not abstract ones.  In fact, the title of the first chapter of this section just happens to be “Why is it so Hard for Students to Understand Abstract ideas?”
    The author states that we understand new ideas best by relating them to things we already know.  Our mind needs analogies, prior knowledge, and concrete (and familiar) examples to help understand abstract ideas.  The author then states that ‘understanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas into working memory, and then rearranging them.’  
    The next section deals with the concept that knowledge is shallow, and that rote knowledge means there is no understanding of the material.  The opposite of this is when a student has deep knowledge, and understands not just the parts but the whole.  This is obviously harder to obtain than ‘shallow’ knowledge.  Again, concrete examples that activate prior knowledge will help the students attain more complete understanding of ideas.
    Transfer of knowledge is another challenge for the mind.  The author discusses ‘surface structure’, and ‘deep structure’ of particular problems that students solve.  ‘Surface structure’ deals with how the question is framed, and ‘deep structure’ deals with the steps that are needed to solve it.  If people concentrated more on the ‘deep structure’ of problems, abstractions would be easier to solve.
    Some suggestions that the author makes to help facilitate deep understanding include:

*Provide examples and ask students to compare them.
*Make ‘deep knowledge’ the spoken and unspoken emphasis.
*Make your expectations for deep knowledge realistic.

    Is the phrase ‘Drill and Kill’ accurate?  In many educational circles it seems to be considered just that.  However, the author states that ‘it is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.’  He gives examples such as practicing soccer skills over and over until they become second-nature, as well as algebra skills being dependent on knowing the basic math facts first.  The important point is that ‘practice enables further learning’.  Knowing which skills need to be practiced over and over, and which ones do not, is the important factor.  
    A person’s working memory capacity determines to a large extent the person’s reasoning ability...and working memory really can not be increased.  We can compensate for our ‘lack’ of working memory, however.  One of the easiest ways to compensate is to make certain skills automatic.  Things that are automatic (like tying our shoes, or driving) take up almost no room in working memory.  They become automatic by repetition, and that frees up more space in our working memory to solve complex problems.  Also, memory is more enduring when practice is spaced out over time (not ‘crammed’ in).
    Practice also makes memory last longer.  Studies have shown that we do forget fairly quickly what we have learned, but we do not forget everything...especially things that have been practiced repeatedly.  Higher-achieving students forget at the same rate as lower-achieving students, and both groups retain some of the memory even after many years.  But both groups do retain some information, even from skills that were not repeatedly practiced.
    The author’s emphasis in this fifth chapter is that repeated practice is necessary for certain skills, and that these skills ultimately help the mind do more with complex tasks.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Super Summary, pages 53-86 (Chapter 3)

The title of this chapter, "Why Do Students Remember Everything That Is On Television, and Forget Everything I Say", was very thought provocative for me. I don't know how many times a day I say to myself, "Why didn't my child remember this?" or "Why can't my co-worker seem to remember how to do something I have shown them 5 times how to do" or even "Why can't I seem to remember ......?" In this chapter, we learn about the role that memory plays in acquiring background knowledge that is necessary for learning.

The author begins the discussion of the importance of memory by talking about what may happen when we don't remember something. He gives the example of asking someone to summarize the last professional development session they attended. If that seems to be a difficult task, then one of several things may have occured. 1) If you don't pay attention to something, then you will not learn it. If you were thinking of other things during the session or lesson, then you won't remember what was being taught during the session or lesson. 2) The process used to draw information from long-term memory failed. 3) The information is no longer in your long-term memory and has been forgotten. 4) Sometimes you do pay attention and material is in your working memory; however, it does not make it to your long-term memory.

For new material to be learned and placed in long-term memory, it must reside in working memory. This means that you need to "pay attention" to the new material for it to end up in your long term memory. Also, how you think about the experience will determine whether it will end up in your long-term memory. Therefore, when teachers design lessons, they need to make sure that students are "thinking about the meaning" of the material being presented.

How can teachers do this? The author identifies two qualities that effective teachers have. Good teachers are able to connect personally with students and they organize learning material in a way that is interesting and easy to understand. These teachers are able to present material in a manner that gets students to pay attention. They also organize the ideas of a lesson in a way that students will learn it and remember it.

What if some material does not have meaning? An example the author provides is when students are at the beginning level of chemistry. Students may be asked to learn symbols for elements on the periodic table - yet they do not have the background knowledge of these elements. Rote memorization will need to be used in this learning experience and there are several mnemonics devices that help people memorize material that does not have meaning.

How can teachers ensure that students "think about meaning"? Willingham provides six suggestions:
1. Try to anticipate what each lesson will actually make students think about.
2. Think carefully about attention grabbers - make sure the "grabber" is directing student to think about the lesson, and not the person or item used to grab their attention.
3. Use Discovery Learning with care - memory is the residue of thought; therefore, students will remember "incorrect" discoveries as well as correct ones.
4. Design assignments so that students will unavoidably think about meaning
5. Use mnemonics when it is necessary to learn something without meaning.
6. Try organizing a lesson plan around the conflict

The end of this chapter was also very thought provoking for me. Willingham states, "I've always been bothered by the advice 'make it relevant to the students' for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn't apply. Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way they can understand right now? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students' lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it is phoney. Second, if I can't convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn't teach it?"

In my intial discussion post, I stated that I think it is important now more than ever to make learning relevant to student lives. Do I just say that because students are constantly asking, "What does this have to do with me?" or "Where will I ever use this?" Willingham goes on to state, "... I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don't have much to do with me. I'm not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I'm suggesting is that students interests should not be the main drivng force for lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as intial points of contact to help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas."

What do you think?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Super Summary part 2

Beth Green will be getting caught up as soon as she can. Her child was ill and in the hospital. Thanks for your patience. If anyone would like to trade weeks with her, please let me know.