How the human mind thinks and how that thinking is put into memory is the business of education.  While we are not medical doctors or cognitive scientists, we can explain the big picture of how human brains learn – at least as it is known to us at this time.  As can often be read in the news, new discoveries about the brain are being made regularly.

What follows is a short summary of human cognition as described by Daniel Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School?. It will be presented in the same sequence as his book in order to make connections to the book easier for you should you choose to read it.  And we do encourage you to read it.  Dr. Willingham presents the concepts in a clear and accessible way.  It is an excellent introduction to how the human brain learns. 

Chapter 1: “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” (pg. 3)
We need to understand that thinking is slow, thinking is hard work, and thinking may not even get us close to the right answer!  A much more efficient system to use is memory – it is faster and takes less effort.  Even though humans find thinking hard, we are very curious and we seek out situations that challenge us to think. Solving problems makes us happy. 

In order to think, we combine new information with information from our memory, holding it all in our short term memory for a brief time. In order to think we need 1) information from our environment 2) facts in long term memory 3) how to do a skill in long term memory and 4) enough space in working memory. If any of these parts of thinking are weak then our thinking fails. 

Chapter 2: “Factual knowledge must precede skill.” (pg. 25)
Students must have significant depth of background knowledge of something before they can think critically about it.  This is because our first strategy when trying to problem solve is to search our memory for a solution that is already there.  It is very difficult trying to think logically about something without enough background knowledge to refer to. 

Another benefit of background knowledge is that having some background knowledge makes it easier to get even more.  Think of the memory you have of a topic as a spider’s web.  Once the basic outline of the web is created in memory more information about that ‘web topic’ has a place to stick to. In other words, the more information already in memory the more you can add to it, more strands are being added to the web.  

There is a paragraph in this chapter that we feel is important.  “If you want to be exposed to new vocabulary and new ideas, the places to go are books, magazines, and newspapers.  Television, video games, and the sorts of Internet content that students lean towards (for example, social networking sites, music sites, and the like) are for the most part unhelpful.  Researchers have painstakingly analyzed the contents of the many ways that students can spend their leisure time.  Books, newspapers, and magazines are singularly helpful in introducing new ideas and new vocabulary.” (pg 46)

Chapter 3: “Memory is the residue of thought.” (pg 54)
Thinking takes energy and your brain is going to be efficient with its energy.  What you spend time thinking about is what is going to become memory.  Read that carefully – you have to actively direct your thinking and spend energy on an idea if you really want to remember it.  It is not what you might want to remember or what you try really hard to remember but what you spend the most time paying attention to that you will remember.  Emotional reactions to something, such as excitement, may help to create a memory but emotion is not necessary.  Discovery learning is best used when the environment provides immediate feedback as to whether the information learned is correct.  Without this feedback students are simply guessing and they may create incorrect memories.  Learning situations created with a carefully planned question, a question that targets the conflict or the “heart of the matter” ensures students will pay attention to the material required to be learned correctly.

Chapter 4: “We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.” (pg 88) 
Old knowledge needs to be retrieved from long term memory, placed in short term memory, and then interact with the new information taken in from the environment.  When this happens the new information is stuck to the ‘knowledge web’.  A knowledge web, also called a schema, with many interconnected strands gives students deep knowledge.  A web with only a few pieces of information about a topic means students have only shallow knowledge.  Deep knowledge is critical in order for a student to show transfer.  Transfer means being able to apply old knowledge to a new problem.  Teachers can assist students in creating deep knowledge by giving lots of examples of and many opportunities to practise with new material. Our minds prefer to stay in the realm of surface structures.  Deep structures are hard to acquire and require great effort. 

Chapter 5: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practise.”  (pg 107)
When you practise you are reinforcing the basic skills needed to learn more advanced skills, you are preventing forgetting, and you are improving transfer. You need to practise something to where you know it automatically.  Once the basics are automatic and not taking up space in your working memory you can begin to learn the next thing.  If what you are learning is not automatic and you try to add even more to your schema then your working memory becomes overloaded.  Working memory is very limited and cannot be increased – you have what you have.  Humans are able to compensate for small working memory space by practising skills to the point of automaticity because something automatic takes up very little space in working memory. 

Forgetting happens at the same rate whether you have practised a lot or a little.  The only protection against forgetting is continued practise.  Continued practise in one large chunk (cramming) is not as effective as continued practising over time (spaced practise).    

Chapter 6: “Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training.” (pg 127)
Experts not only know more than a beginner learner but their mind also organizes the information differently.  Novice learners are not experts-in-training.  They have a different kind of thinking compared to an expert.  They think like someone new to the concept or skill. Practise to the point of automaticity makes a qualitative as well as quantitative difference.  Experts have more material mastered so this gives them more space in working memory when taking in new information.  With more working memory space and more and faster retrieval of old knowledge from long term memory experts are able to think about the deeper structures of knowledge instead of focusing on only the surface structure.  Experts can easily think in abstractions and not just in the concrete.  Novices concentrate on knowledge comprehension. Experts concentrate on knowledge creation.  This is an important note from Dr. Willingham: “Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a nonexpert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise.” (pg 144)

Chapter 7: “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.” (pg 147)
There is a difference between cognitive abilities and cognitive styles.  Cognitive ability means the capacity for certain types of thought. Cognitive style means how we prefer to think and learn.  At this time there is no theory of cognitive styles that stands up to research scrutiny.  Our energy is better spent attending to students’ cognitive ability.  Cognitive strengths in one area cannot be used to improve a cognitive weakness in another area. 

Chapter 8: “Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.” (pg 170)
General intelligence is affected by both the physical genes inherited and by the environment a learner exists in.  An important aspect of genetic influence on intelligence is that we tend to seek out environments that improve our skills.  This theory is called the Flynn Effect.  Genetics and the environment interact in changing intelligence. 

Students with a fixed view of intelligence believe intelligence cannot be improved. They find risk taking unnerving because a wrong answer will reveal a lack of intelligence.  Praising students for their ability (“That was a smart idea.”) reinforces this fixed view.  Students with a malleable view of intelligence believe intelligence can be improved.  They find risk taking easier to do because they do not believe a wrong answer shows a lack of intelligence.  Praising students for their effort (“You worked really hard today.”) reinforces a malleable view. 

A Very Short Summary:
Ch. 1 Effective thinking requires adequate working memory and relevant background knowledge and procedures.   
Ch. 2 Factual knowledge is important.
Ch. 3 There are known techniques that are superior for getting facts into memory.
Ch. 4 The mind does not care for abstractions. It prefers the concrete.
Ch. 5 Practise provides competence and proficiency.
Ch. 6 Novice learners do not think like experts.  Experts practise a lot. 
Ch. 7 Cognitive ability is more important than cognitive style. 
Ch. 8 Intelligence can be improved.  Any information you find hard to learn may mean you have to work harder at it than others but learning is possible for everyone.  

Related Reading:

Brian H. Bornstien
Uta Frith & Sarah Jayne Blakemore
Paul Harris
National Research Council