Rethinking the way we learn

rethinking the way we learn

As soon as I finished reading Daniel Willingham’s fascinating book Why Don’t Students Like School?, I immediately put it on my list to blog about. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, applies the principles of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Essentially, his goal is explain to teachers how their students’ brains work.

The common wisdom in education holds that memorizing facts is a waste of time. In contrast Willingham believes the more details you know about a subject, the more you can understand the subject. By memorizing, we spend less time recalling facts which frees up time to spend on learning new concepts.

A few weeks ago I was reminded of Willingham when reading an article titled Rethinking the Way We Learn in my alma mater’s magazine. Willingham tries to dispel the myth people have different learning styles and teachers are more effective when they leverage individual ways students process information. In fact, cognitive science has shown we all learn very similarly.

For example, first ask visual learners and audio learners to listen to vocabulary words several times and then have them look at pictures depicting other words. If the learning style theory is accurate, the audio learners would get more words right the first way and the visual ones would get more correct via pictures. Unfortunately, research has shown this doesn’t happen. In Willingham’s words,

People do have preferences, but they don’t think or remember better when [those preferences] are honored.

Willingham busts a couple of other myths as well:

Myth: Left-brained/Right-brained types
The left hemisphere of the brain deals with more ordered, logical thinking, whereas the right hemisphere is more artistic and intuitive.

Fact: “People certainly differ in their abilities—verbal versus mathematical, for example—but these differences are not much reflected in the brain hemispheres. Most tasks are complex enough that they call on much of the brain, both left and right hemispheres, for their support.”

Myth: Learning to read is natural
It’s like learning to speak, and reading instruction is not only unnecessary, it makes kids hate reading.

Fact: “Learning to speak is, indeed, ‘natural’ in that it’s a terribly complex feat that virtually all children learn, and learn merely by exposure to language—instruction is not needed. But most children do not learn to read merely by exposure to printed texts.”

Daniel Willingham challenges many tightly-held myths about how the brain works and therefore how we should design education. It’s time to rethink how we learn.

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8 Responses to Rethinking the way we learn

  1. Paul Kurchina July 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm #

    Will pick up his book

  2. William Newman July 22, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    While many students are prepared for university level learning in the USA our K-12 system does produce disparate ranges in knowledge and skills. In my work as an undergraduate adjunct faculty member I have seen a tangible number of upper-classmen whose writing skills are basic steps above “text language” rife with incomplete sentences. Fundamental learning is lost to a growing number of students even as we cater individual learning to the “lowest common denominator” in our classrooms.

  3. Malin July 22, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    The topics of memorizing and learning to read made me smile remembering how I learned to read when I was 5. I had my favourite book read to me (by very patient parents) until I knew every word of the story by heart. At some point I must have thought the parents were redundant in this process, started to pick up the book myself and knowing the story I learned how to read the letters and written words. I can still remember my awe when I realized that what I had figured out with this book made it possible to read any book I wanted when I wanted. Not sure if this supports or contradicts the facts above but I still love reading to this day 🙂

    • Jonathan July 22, 2013 at 6:55 am #

      I’d say your experience supports the research. Rote memorization increased comprehension and appreciation for the skill.

  4. Ric Rogers July 22, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    I have enjoyed a couple books on this subject; “Brain Rules” probably the best among them. This is the first time I have seen or heard of studies relating learning ability to learning preference. Very insightful. In the end it makes sense. The brain works how the brain works. Why should what we personally enjoy affect the neurochemistry involved.

    I am involved in two related stories right now. The first is “The Origin of Tepees” by Jonnie Hughes. I cannot recommend this book enough. Great insights on learning and culture as science and history, but also told with a great sense of humor. The other is “Moonwalking with Einstein” which talks of memory and forgetting and how the brain can be trained to excel at either. This may suggest that higher IQs have more to do with intuitive success in using our memories more effectively than with actual “ability”…”Grey” area there (Ha!)

  5. Robert E July 25, 2013 at 7:12 am #

    Ken Robinson has some interesting ideas about education, as well as being a humorous and thoughtful speaker. I have to admit that rote learning and memorization have certainly benefited my education and propelled my creativity rather than contained it.

  6. todbizz August 19, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    Reblogged this on todbizz.

  7. Sandra Harriette September 13, 2013 at 2:28 am #

    I skimmed through that article on the UVA website. There’s a lot of good stuff there that could fuel some other articles!

    Rethinking the way one learns is pivotal to the learning process as a whole. When in school, I definitely wanted my brain to do more than just retain information for tests: I wanted to DO something with that knowledge. The way school systems are set up, actually retaining that knowledge from memorized facts isn’t so easy.

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