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Ep. 111: Daniel Willingham – Cognitive Advantages to Teaching the Right Way

May 22, 2020 Daniel Willingham Season 1 Episode 111
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Ep. 111: Daniel Willingham – Cognitive Advantages to Teaching the Right Way
Show Notes Transcript

What do cooking, fishing, putting together a bookshelf, and a fixing a wall mount in the garage for your bike have in common? They are far easier to do by yourself than to teach it to someone. Those who teach recognize the challenge in going beyond learner engagement and external rewards or punishment; instead setting learners’ intrinsic motivation on fire by making them curious and engaged children.

On this episode cognitive psychologist, prolific author, columnist for American Educator magazine, and professor of psychology, Daniel Willingham highlights the applicability of the fundamental principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience which, when understood, can create a tapestry of successful and pleasurable learning experiences for all.

About Daniel Willingham
Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education.

He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, When Can You Trust the Experts?, Raising Kids Who Read, and The Reading Mind. His writing on education has appeared in sixteen languages.

​In 2017 he was appointed by President Obama to serve as a Member of the National Board for Education Sciences.



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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to the podcast, Todd, how are you?

Producer: I’m doing great. As you were saying before we went live, today’s guest is a prolific writer. It’s going to be a great conversation, looking forward to it.

Sucheta: Certainly, it’s going to be, and particularly those of my listeners who are interested in understanding how learning and thinking, and teaching work and how they go hand in hand, this is the right talk to tune into. I myself have thought a lot about learning and teaching myself. I was born and raised in India, one of the cultural references that often have come up in childhood stories is the concept of a guru, so guru is a teacher but guru is also a motivator. But I learned, it’s a colloquial story, I guess, it was a very, very famous teacher and he was teaching the likes of the princes and princesses, and young men from a village that did not have access to the teacher, so he goes anyway and was asked, “Would you be my teacher?” and he says, “No, I can’t really teach because I have this responsibility,” so this young man goes to the forest and then he has the teacher’s footwear and he kind of keeps that in sight, and all the skills that he learns is simply worshiping at the feet of the guru. I mean, this is, of course, a fantastic story, but what I really like about, revering the teachers and what they do for us, but it’s not an easy thing to understand how to be an effective teacher, particularly in this day and age, there is so much access to the science of learning and teaching, but not all science and learning of teaching gets in front of the teacher. That’s why it’s such a great pleasure and honor to invite Dr. Daniel Willingham who is a cognitive psychologist. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia where he has taught since 1992 until about 2000. His research focused solely on the brain bases of learning and memory. Today, all of this research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K – 16 education, and he writes as a cognitive scientist column for American Educator Magazine and he is the author of several books. One particular book that if you are a teacher, you must, must read and study, I guess, for yourself or maybe it should be part of your reading club. This is called Why Don’t Students Like School? but he has many books. Today, we’re going to concentrate on that book. In 2017, he was appointed by President Obama to serve as a member of the National Board of Education and Sciences. So, it’s a great pleasure to invite Dr. Willingham to the podcast. Welcome

Dr. Daniel Willingham: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.

Sucheta: This podcast about executive function which entails adaptive flexibility, goal assessment, intentional focus, and goal-directed behavior, so could you share with us a little bit about your own executive functioning skills, and as a learner and thinker, when did you become aware of your own ability to manage your learning?

Dr. Willingham: Wow, what an interesting question. In terms of my own executive function skills, sort of commenting on them broadly, it’s challenging. We mostly notice our executive function skills, I think, when they fail us, when we are frustrated and things don’t seem to be going well. I would say for me, as they are for all of your listeners and for you, your executive function skills actually work better than you realize because most of the time or much of the time, they are really invisible to you, so you are switching attention, you are thinking about the future and planning for the future, you are using working memory. Executive function is so central to all of cognition that you are calling on these processes all the time, and most of the time, they serve you really, really well. When they don’t, again, there are some at a means, you end up being very frustrated because you are trying to switch attention effectively and it’s not going very well. We should all feel a bit better. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to try and find strategies to improve, but we should maybe not be quite so hard on ourselves as many of us tend to be. When it comes to my own sort of personal experience with trying to gain more control over executive function and metacognition generally, I really lived almost my entire life in schooling situations. I had one year between college and graduate school where I was in the workforce. Other than that, I have been either a student or a teacher, but it wasn’t really until graduate school that I started to develop some what I now think were fairly good strategies to help me control executive function in particular in the context of being a student. This has actually been a topic that has been a lot of interest to me just in the last couple of years. It’s the next book project that I’m working on. The easiest way to put it is this: when we think about the extent to which we have high expectations for students to be able to control their executive function, think about what we expect kindergartners to be able to do and what we expect high school seniors to be able to do. For kindergartners, our expectations are quite appropriately very close to zero, right?

Sucheta: Yes.

Dr. Willingham: Right? I mean, think of it, Sucheta, it’s like if there were a kindergarten or wasn’t learning anything, you wouldn’t say to that child, “Now, listen, you really need to buckle down and start taking your schooling seriously,” but you absolutely would say that to a 12th grader. The expectations continue grade by grade, they increase and the things we expect students to be able to do by way of regulating their attention, knowing how to commit things to memory, knowing how to be resourceful if they read a text and they don’t understand, that sort of where to turn when that happens, and so – sorry, this is a long answer to what –

Sucheta: No, that’s fine.

Dr. Willingham: Yeah, you didn’t know that this simple question is going to lead to this cascade, I apologize, but it is something I’m super excited about, this idea that these expectations continually increase for students and yet most of the students like me are sort of left to discover this on their own. It’s not part of the standard school curricula, and it might sound funny that I sound excited about it, but the reason I’m excited about it is, right now, we’re not doing much of anything to help students with that, since we just start doing a little something, it doesn’t need to be amazing. I think students will benefit enormously from it if we start providing some instruction and how to regulate those processes.

Sucheta: Well, it wasn’t long-winded. I think it’s so nice that you have woven your own personal experience into the need of the hour. This is something I have been involved with in the last 20 years, and as you mentioned, one, we only notice our executive functioning skills or need of those skills only when we fail, and so that often to be the reason children are recognized to have problems, and by then, it’s already two years to me have gone by before somebody actually said, “Okay, we have reached that critical threshold that we need to do something about it because I’m giving you a lot of elbowroom,” but the second thing is, as you said, a very, very important point which you already answered my question that was going to come down the road is we need to do something now, and what is it that now we need to do about which of the many things we talk about here, you had not framed it using the reference called executive function reference, so that’s something I would love to get into.

I have one more question regarding your personal experience. Since you talk so much about excellent teaching and practices, did you ever encounter a good teacher from your kindergarten to high school experience who actually exemplified the practices that you talk about? What was that teacher doing?

Dr. Willingham: Such an interesting question. I don’t think I have ever thought about that before though it seems perfectly natural. I do talk an awful lot about the coordination of what we know of from cognitive psychology with educational practice, and you would think and I certainly think about it in my own practice, like am I doing what I suggest other people ought to do? But I have not thought very carefully about whether when I was sitting in the classroom, whether my teachers did that, and honestly, I think the way to think about educational practice in that sense of whether it squares with principles of cognition, that’s pretty fine-grained and I think my memory from all those years ago is probably not detailed enough to really evaluate it. I will say, I had a lot of teachers who I really enjoyed and appreciated at the time, and I think were also very effective. I think a lot of adults, that remains my main memory of teachers, it’s pretty foggy, but there is sort of emotional connection that I thought with them, and then also this sense – it would be hard to pin down exactly what Mr. Leeward taught me in the 5th grade but I remember him really well and I remember him fondly, and I remember thinking even as a fifth grader, gosh, I’m really learning a lot from this man.

Sucheta: I agree with you. It’s really hard. I have been thinking a lot myself about that question and I have one particular, my 11th and 12th grade literature teacher, he was an incredibly well-read teacher and he was a [0:09:46] himself, and one of the most prolific ways he related a story or narrative to any story from other literatures that he had read, and that cross-referencing was one of things that struck out, but as you said, it is so much a fine-grained still that I never have taken the time or event I don’t think I will recall.

In almost all of your writing, you highlight fundamental principles from cognitive psychology and neuroscience so that educators understand the why and how of effective teaching, so I wonder what you would say to the question, is learning harder than teaching or is teaching harder than learning?

Dr. Willingham: I think teaching is much harder to learning. Once again, it’s a fascinating question and I’ve never thought about it before, so here is my off-the-cuff answer and I probably can be talked out of this, but I think teaching is harder than learning. The reason I say that is that learning is a really not susceptible to effort or intention. You learn based on cognitive activity, so if you engage in the right cognitive activities, the learning will come naturally or for free, but wanting to learn something actually means nothing. When I was in graduate school, I went to graduate school in cognitive psychology not really knowing what I was going to study. I was interested in lots of different things, and I took a course in human memory. I think my second quarter in graduate school and this was the finding that the professor told me about that I found so mind-boggling, it made me want to be a memory researcher, which is that wanting to learn something just doesn’t contribute anything to whether or not you actually retain it. Everything is determined by the processing that’s happening in working memory: how you think about whatever it is that you are experiencing. That is what’s going to determine whether or not you remember it. So, learning in that sense means learning could be effortful because you are trying to do a particular type of activity that is going to lead memory to be sticky, that’s going to lead you to remember this content later. Teaching, in contrast, that’s always going to be effortful.

Sucheta: Yes, it’s hard for both, the teacher and learner to get the bi and, and then presented in a way that actually leads to acquisition of knowledge.

Dr. Willingham: Sucheta, that is a much better answer than the one I gave, that’s very diplomatic. I think that’s absolutely right. It is difficult for both and I think that’s probably the fairest way to put it. But that was what your question made me think of, is the fact that effort, just [0:12:18] effort doesn’t actually do anything on the part of the learner.

In another way, if you are lecturing, it’s really easy to lecture. It’s really hard to sit and listen to a lecture.

Sucheta: Oh, so true, and I’m so concerned, we are taping this during the COVID-19 sequestering, I guess, and I’m so concerned about our students being in front of these computers and in the virtual space with no human contact. That is a whole bag of worms there, but it’s so interesting that you mentioned how do we affirm engagement? Sometimes, teachers are so sold on what they are teaching because they are in love with their own knowledge that they don’t really do a double take: is it coming through to the other person?

Dr. Willingham: Absolutely.

Sucheta: Let’s talk about the role of neuroscience and cognitive psychology, what role do they play in informing or influencing the field of education, and how it effectively do you think this relationship is currently being harnessed or exploited, even?

Dr. Willingham: Great question, and unlike your other wonderful questions, this is one I have thought about a lot and have in fact written about. I will start with cognitive psychology, I guess. I think cognitive psychology certainly can play a role. I think there’s an important distinction about the type of scientific evidence that can be brought to bear on education all situations are classroom situations. Cognitive psychology is the basic science. The characteristic I am focusing on is that basic sciences describe the world as it is, that is the goal of a basic science, that is the goal of biology, chemistry, physics. Cognitive psychology, you are trying to understand how the human brain, how the human mind, I should say, works, how we remember, how attention is deployed and so on. Education is not a basic science; education is an applied science. Applied sciences, the key characteristic is that they are goal-driven: rather than trying to describe the world, you are trying to change the world to make it more like you think it ought to be, so in that sense, education is similar to all the branches of engineering, to urban planning, economics. They are particular things that you want to happen in the world and you draw on basic sciences in an effort to make them happen, so in the case of architecture, for example, you draw on physics and material science to help you determine whether or not a building is going to fall down, but physics and material science doesn’t tell you how to build the building, really, because you have many other concerns. It is goal-driven, again, if you need to ask yourself what is the purpose of this building? How many people is it supposed to hold? What is my budget? Do I care what the building looks like? All those questions are outside of science. I think it’s enormously important to be very clear about the ways in which science can contribute to education and the ways in which science cannot. That’s why I’m going through this distinction between basic and applied sciences. Cognitive psychology, just like physics and material science can give you some idea about very important features of children’s minds, of children’s emotional life, of children’s motivation, of how people act when they are in groups, what motivates people, but it’s not going to be prescriptive about what to do. Education is still a goal-driven enterprise, so psychology can tell you something about how kids learn and that is just a small part of the picture.

Sucheta: Wow, I’m so glad you laid out the distinction between the two because often, I see people using some discovery or explanation from cognitive science as if it is guaranteeing an application will come to fruition, and I’m not saying that we cannot be informed by the information from cognitive sciences as its supporting behaviors or responses to condition, so what is the best way, in your opinion – I mean, of course, if you’re getting into how to go about explaining that you certainly see that there is an applicability and that it needs to be done in a particular way. What part is done well and what part is not done well? For example, strong curriculum for teacher training is a must. Are we truly preparing teachers with the knowledge of how the brain learns and do they get all the guidance and help so they walk into the classroom with the most effective teaching tools?

Dr. Willingham: The first thing to note is that it’s very hard to draw up blankets, conclusions about teacher education in the United States because there are literally thousands of teacher education programs and they vary quite a lot in what they do, even within a state. I mean, states vary in their licensure requirements, in the course work that they require, and other content that future teachers know is going to be on their licensing exam. That varies across the 50 states. Even within a state, there’s still broad latitude in terms of training, so that’s the first thing to say, is that we need to be careful when we talk about sort of how teachers are educated in the US. That said, it’s hard to find people who are willing to say American teachers have a very up-to-date and very thorough knowledge of the psychology of learning and motivation, and emotion. What I have pointed out is that to the extent that you can generalize about how future teachers are educated in psychology, I have suggested they are educated like future researchers. They are not really educated like future practitioners. I base this on you can look at licensing exams and see what is it that teachers are told “you must know this before you will be licensed to teach in this state,” and most of those licensure exams, the psychology that they want teachers to know looks like an introduction to the science of psychology. The distinction there between that and what a practitioner would want to know is if you are going to be a researcher, you need to know the theories, you need to know the big trends in the field, you need to know who the important people are in the field. It’s like if you take Psych 101, that’s the kind of stuff you are going to be introduced to. What I’ve argued is, for future teachers, that doesn’t have any utility. I mean, it might be interesting and if you are a teacher who is interested, more power to you, God bless you. This is my field, I love it for everyone to be really interested in the science of psychology, but realistically, you are trying to become a practitioner. What you need to know are the limited number of things that psychologists can tell you, kids behave like this. As a generalization, we can say here’s what we know about the human mind at age 10 and how it learns, and how it responds emotionally and so forth. To the extent that we can draw generalizations about that, here is what you need to know so that you are in a little bit better situation to understand children and predict how they are going to respond to various things that you do in your classroom. That’s what they need to know. They don’t need to know a bunch of theories, many of which are now out of date from psychology that don’t have any practical utility for them, so that’s my concern. I think, you asked, are they learning it? The answer is I think they actually are. I think that content that I’m saying they should learn, they are learning it. It is lost in the shuffle of minutes a whole lot of other stuff that they are asked to learn that doesn’t really have very much practical use for them.

Sucheta: Do you notice that sometimes, I feel they don’t have enough experience? Now, I’m a practicing clinician with a speech and language pathology background, and we have a very rigorous training including you have to have masters, and then you have a clinical certification which I think the teachers have as well, but one thing that I find is the area of counseling where I have to deal with difficult people, and children can be difficult people to teach, and I think that using the psych-wise attitude, it’s not necessarily innate to all humans, and for teachers though, they need to cultivate that, and that’s something I feel there is a knowledge but when it comes to interacting with children, particularly when they are going through learning difficulties, there is a notion of blame shift, like you are not learning, there is something wrong with you, so is there something, a value in that kind of education that the teachers receive to impart this knowledge of how to handle people, how to handle difficult children who are pushing the curriculum away or not engaging?

Dr. Willingham: People absolutely have been sensitive to the issue that you are raising, so I will rephrase it and you can tell me if this doesn’t seem fair, that were not going to learn how to teach solely by sitting in a classroom yourself and listening to someone talking about teaching, just as the way you would learn how to ski is to get a little instruction but then you need to get on the slopes and do some skiing, but the same thing applies with teaching. Now, almost every jurisdiction will require some sort of student teaching experience where people are actually going to be in the classroom and they are going to be supervised and they are presumably going to get some feedback. There is less quality control about the nature of that feedback than you might hope in many instances, so it’s not necessarily the case, first of all, that it is assured that there is a top-notch – not just a top-notch teacher but someone who is really good at giving feedback to a novice, not the same thing, right? To be a really good player versus to be a really good coach is not the same thing, so we would like to see assurance that we got a great coach. We would also like to see some system at the city in the experiences that the future teacher is going to have, so it’s not just like yeah, you’re going to spend eight weeks in this classroom and then you will do a bunch of lessons, but rather, this is going to be targeted and we are going to be thinking through the types of experiences that you will most benefit from. That is very seldomly placed. There is a couple of pieces of there that you would think would really enhance this experience if it were precedents that most often probably is not present, and maybe for that reason, when researchers have exempted, will what happens when you have a program that emphasizes in class experience of more than sitting in a chair and taking a test and thinking about what it’s like to be a teacher. If you give people more experience, do they end up with students learn more? Do they end up being better teachers, and the answer for the most part is, those effects are actually really hard to find.

Sucheta: Oh, really?

Dr. Willingham: That doesn’t mean that the type of experience – yeah, yeah, but again, I want to emphasize, that doesn’t mean that the type of experience you are asking about isn’t it really important and couldn’t be more beneficial. It might just be that we are not doing it right.

Sucheta: I gotcha. Well, it’s like dating, you know? Unless you have been dumped ten times and had the opportunity to dump 10 times, you really don’t get good at the game.

Dr. Willingham: Wow! Boy, [0:23:28], yeah.

Sucheta: That sounds awful. [0:23:30] years, but unless you have a range of students that you have seen who succeed without your help and those who don’t succeed in spite of your help, you don’t have arranged to appreciate in what shapes and skill sets do student present themselves, is what I meant. That analogy was horrible.

Dr. Willingham: I’m giving you a hard time, but no, that’s absolutely a point well taken, but I think you would find every educator would agree with you, and in fact surveys of educators, when you ask them what is it that has most influenced your teaching, your instruction, always, the top answer is, my own experience in the classroom. The next most important feature that according to respondents is the experience of other teachers in my school who tell me about what they experienced and how they responded to it.

Sucheta: What do good teachers have in common and what are they doing that stands the test of time and allows them to engage to almost all students or the most difficult ones as well?

Dr. Willingham: There are a couple of things, and it’s actually interesting. It’s very similar to the literature on parenting and the styles of parenting that lead to children flourishing.

Sucheta: Oh, really?

Dr. Willingham: Yeah, the two main ingredients are warm and boundaries. Teachers with successful classrooms, they have rules and they enforce the rules, and this is very important for children. If they want the world to be predictable. T Berry Brazelton is a brilliant pediatrician who passed away recently, and the way he put it was children want to know that someone else is in charge. They may be couldn’t articulate it this will themselves, but they know full well. I’m a third grader. I know what I’m doing. They don’t want to feel like it’s all up to me. They want to feel like okay, here’s this adult, they have got everything under control, and the way you lens that serenity to the classroom and this feeling like everything is fine, things are under control and predictable is that there are rules. This doesn’t mean that things need to be rigid and it needs to have sort of a military feel to it, but the rules that there are keep the class orderly and make everyone feel safe and they are consistently enforced. Now, coupled with, you can do that, you can have rules and be rigid, and the attitude can end up feeling cool, right? So, warmth is enormously important as well. Personal relationship between the teacher and each individual student, for students to feel that I’m valued, to feel my teacher sees me, my teacher likes me, my teacher generally has positive regard for me, thanks well of me. All of those things are and are mostly important to student outcomes and they are good data. I mean, when you are older, especially if you have a strong sense of yourself as a student and you feel like school is a place where I belong, school is a place where I’m successful, if you are in 10th grade and you have got that strong feeling that I do well in school, this is a place for me, you can be a 10th grader and have a teacher who you do not like and who you sense does not like you and you nevertheless will be able to learn from that teacher because your strong attitude and self-esteem as a scholar will pull you through. That is almost impossible when you are in early elementary years. Children that age need to have a warm relationship with their teacher in order to learn from them, so those are the things that I think are enormously important. This is totally setting aside curriculum for the moment and instruction, and just talking about sort of the basics of what needs to be in place for a classroom to be a place where most of the children are going to be ready to learn.

Sucheta: So, it sounds to me like the best human practices, those with good human traits can be effective mentors, effective relation all folks with capacity to have that unconditional acceptance of a child and his space in the universe to be able to learn, and I always say to teachers when I do my training, that learning by definition is not knowing, so if somebody doesn’t know, you can’t accuse them for not knowing, so it has to be handled with great warmth.

Let’s go into the curriculum and instructional aspects of it. Teachers to create lesson plans, but I find that those are centered around goals and missions of teaching something, but you really stress on this idea and I quote from your book that you remember what you think, so in order to facilitate good learning, teachers need to themselves think and plan, and execute good lesson plans. How should that be executed? Because sometimes, I think the shenanigans or the flare that teacher brings so that they get the engagement, but that sometimes overpowers. You have given lots and lots of examples, teacher dressing up in a toga and coming in to teach talking about Greek history but the toga eventually can be very interfering, or using PowerPoint to demonstrate something but then kids are engulfed in following creative ways to create cartoons or animations in the PowerPoint, then forget the contents, so what are some of those best practices that can be executed through good lesson plans?

Dr. Willingham: Here, again, we were talking a moment ago about the role of experience in education and why it’s so important, and this is, I think, another place where this comes up. The principle that I would articulate it as a cognitive psychologist is very simple, and it’s just as you said, it’s one of the things that once it’s pointed out to you, you are like, yeah, of course, that’s true. You remember what you think about. If you are not thinking about something, you obviously are not going to remember it, and so students don’t remember what they hope they are going to remember, they certainly don’t remember what their teacher hopes they are going to remember. They remember what they think about, and so the very simple guideline is if you are a teacher, you need to anticipate, what are my students actually going to think about when I ask them to engage in this activity? Whether it’s a group project or whether you are asking them to watch a video or complete a worksheet, whatever it is, what are the actually going to be thinking about when they complete it? To the extent they are going to learn, and remember that’s going to be it. The reason experience is so important is anticipating what people are actually going to think about is easier said than done. The examples that you gave of, for example, a teacher dad when I was observing in the classroom one time, asking students to – they were actually given a fair amount of leeway. They were studying on their own in groups, then they were supposed to share what they had learned with the group, and then one group asked, “Can we do PowerPoint?” And pretty soon, everybody wanted to do PowerPoint, and then they were all focused on how to make flashy PowerPoint things, and the point was, that’s what they are going to remember, that is what they are thinking about, they are not really thinking deeply enough about the content that the teacher was hoping they were going to focus on, and teacher experience was going to be enormously important. I promise you, that teacher was going to amend that practice next year if he was going to allow PowerPoint, he was going to come up with a way of controlling it because obviously, he immediately saw what the problem was, so I think the principle is a very easy to articulate, just trying to anticipate what they are going to think about, but the difficulty is that it does require a lot of experience and insight to anticipate how students are going to react to various things we asked them to do.

Sucheta: The thing about this practice is just like you have explained in your chapters, in your encounter with your daughter, I have always had these questions for my children who are now in college, like what did you learn, why did you learn, and why did your teacher choose to show it this way or do it this way? It’s often because my kids grew up with that practice, eventually, first, their answers used to be, “I don’t know what you are thinking,” like my kids used to come home and say, “Oh, we did in that class was watched a video, so I said, “Well, teacher actually went out of her way to select that video and she had some intention,” so kind of that theory of mind, getting children to think or compete behind an action and look at the intention is such an intentional process but sometimes, teachers feel or may assume that children actually know their intentions, so that could be a lost-in-translation element there.

Another important thing to develop knowledge, so there is learning, and then with the steps in learning, you build knowledge. Can you talk about the role of contacts or the role of the fund of knowledge a sometimes we refer to that, and what role does the reading play in that in creating that fund of knowledge, the breadth with which we appreciate new information that we may not be most familiar with but we have something related or similar to relate it to?

Dr. Willingham: Yeah, that’s a great question and that is something I have written about quite a lot. Oh, let me start by saying the way cognition works is an easy cartoon to having your head or an easy sort of bumper sticker is unique knowledge, and then you need processes that menu played that knowledge or operate on that knowledge in some way. This is generally true of what we think of as successful cognition, so if you look even on an IQ test, if you’re trying to very broadly characterize, this is someone who, confronted with a novel situation is likely to think pretty successfully or they are going to struggle. Every IQ test has knowledge-based questions on it and also has some processing type questions where you are manipulating information. I bring this up because in American education in particular, there is an almost pathological fear that what happens in school is kids learn a bunch of content knowledge and they don’t learn how to think, and so there is this emphasis that what we need to do is to get kids to think and what we want to do is teach kids how to analyze and how to synthesize, and how to summarize, we want to teach how to be critical thinkers. What I have emphasized is the two things go hand in hand. You have to have knowledge. It’s absolutely true that you can memorize a bunch of facts and they are all disconnected from one another, and that is a fruitless exercise, it’s not benefiting you at all, but it’s equally true that you can’t think in the absence of a knowledge base. Trying to get kids to engage in a lot of critical thinking but not coupling that critical thinking with content-based knowledge, so if you are in a history class, you don’t want to just teach them, you don’t say like, “I’m going to just teach them how to analyze history.” You need to teach them to analyze history, do the things that constitute historical analysis. You need to teach them that in the context of factual knowledge about history. I’ll give you one example of that. You mentioned reading. Reading is multifaceted, and early on, of course, kids are mostly concerned with the decoding, they are learning to go from print on the page to words in the mind. Once they get beyond that, they can sound out words fairly fluently and they can read aloud the text, then we get much more concerned with comprehension and the expectations for comprehension increased a lot around third grade. Most kids are able to decode fluently, so what does comprehension depend on? Comprehension, surprisingly, does depend a little bit on – but you can think of it as sort of a skill-based cognitive process, that is a skill-based in that it can apply to once you could do it, it’s sort of like playing that can owe, any piece of sheet music that comes along, you can play it fairly well if you are a competent pianist, but it’s also true that the main driver of comprehension is actually what you know about the topic. The reason that’s true is that communication of any sort, whether it’s spoken communication or written communication, the communicator omits information that they think their audience already has. Otherwise, communication would just be really redundant and pouring. For example, suppose I said to you, my wife and I were going to take a vacation, we want to do one of those Alaskan cruises, but it turned out, she could only get time off in January. That would be a normal thing for me to say to you, right? But notice how much information I have left out. I have omitted the fact that it is really cold in January. I have omitted the fact that it is especially cold in Alaska in January. I have omitted the fact that people generally don’t want to take a cruise at a time when it’s extraordinarily cold. Now, why didn’t I just say all that if the right interpretation, what I was hoping you would understand is a causal connection between two things? When my wife could get vacation and why we didn’t take this particular cruise. In order to understand the causal relationship between those two things, you needed to have those three pieces of information that I did not provide, so why did I not provide it? Why didn’t I just say what I meant? Well, the answer is, if I said what I meant and I said all that stuff that you already know, I would be an incredibly boring conversationalist. Everybody knows in people like this, that sort of beat into the ground everything that they say and they are explaining all this stuff to you until you just want to scream and say, “I get it, I get it, can we please move on?” Writing is the same as speaking. Writers commit, I mean, you’ve heard the key to writing is knowing your audience. What knowing your audience means is being good at guessing what they already know, so you can explain the things that need to be explained and you can leave out the things that can be safely left out, so this is where we get to this idea I started with, that reading depends heavily on background knowledge about the topic. If you and I are having a conversation and you have never heard of Alaska and you don’t know it is cold there in January, then what I said to you was not really make very much sense and you would say, “What? What are you talking about?” But if you are reading that, you can’t ask the author that question. The author has gambled on what you do and you happen not to have that knowledge, and now, you’re just not going to understand.

There’s lots of research, sort of I’m just given a sort of conceptual explanation of it, there is lots of research showing that the knowledge on that specific topic of what you are reading, your knowledge of what you already know about that topic is a very important determinant of how well you are going to comprehend the new text that you are reading.

Sucheta: It’s such a powerful way to understand the importance of reading comprehension, but the way we engage in formal learning, I have to give you a quick story. I was born and raised in India and came here to go to grad school, and my first semester, my literally first Halloween, so I came to this country in August and October was Halloween, so I was invited to a friend’s house. First of all, you have to remember, in India, any festival, you dress up, you dress up to the T, like you are looking really great, and then I was told this is a “festival,” an American festival, and I was so befuddled, like why are people looking weird instead of nice? I come into this party with a mummy who was fully wrapped in bandages, two of them sitting and we all sat around in a circle and my friend gave me a headband strings with fake plastic pumpkins but I was not at all dressed properly for the event, and then they were sitting and I joined the conversation. One says, completely outfitted as a mummy, just keep that in mind, says, “I just quit smoking cold turkey,” so here I am, not knowing the idiom, I’m looking at one mummy to another and I couldn’t understand anything about what was just happening around me. No context whatsoever.

Dr. Willingham: Yup. That’s a beautiful example, absolutely.

Sucheta: And then, I’ll give you one more quick example. My son is just got home because of COVID and we are under quarantine, and so my first day back, my son goes to school in New York and the other just came back from Tanzania, and there is some question that came up that my husband asked and my younger son says, “What do you mean?” My older son says to him, “Infer and extrapolate just like mom says.” I am so happy that yes, this has become a culture in our household of inferring and extrapolating. If you don’t know something, kind of look through your fund of knowledge and figure out something, formulate some meaning.

Dr. Willingham: Absolutely, see if you can figure it out.

Sucheta: Exactly. So, as we come to an end, I have this important question regarding the role of executive function in teaching and learning. How about self-management and self-regulation, and metacognitive processes? They just seem to, as you reference in the beginning, followed by the wayside. My experience is when issues surface, teachers are addressing it, and students need to take charge of their own learning or recognize or develop these self-efficacy skills and self-corrective measures, we call them learning strategies, I guess. They don’t seem to be most aware of either what they are doing or what is expected, but they also don’t have access to the best redirecting strategies for self because they are not informed by self-awareness. How do you see that being addressed in education, and if not, how should we go about it?

Dr. Willingham: I think individual teachers are doing it or at least some are, but it remains something that I think is mostly at their own initiative. There’s not an emphasis on including that sort of content in the curriculum. For example, teaching children strategies for what you do when you find yourself distracted, you legitimately want to be focusing on an assignment that you may be have a homework or maybe you are in class and you keep finding yourself distracted. What can you do in that circumstance? Or you find that you are frequently emotional in ways that are not helpful? You find you lash out at people or you just sort of fly off the handle and shout at people? This happens to you a lot, you find you are regretting it. There’s not much that has been done to prepare future teachers to then help students learn these sort of self-management techniques. To be fair, a lot of this work is relatively new. It takes some time for it to develop. I think what needs to happen is people need to write curricula whereby this content can be taught to students at the right age. I have mentioned a couple sort of self-management problems that could be addressed that are sort of more in the self-control emotional range, but the same thing is true for learning how to learn, learning techniques for self-management that apply to studying – distraction is actually one that would apply to studying, and I’m actually involved in an effort to write a curriculum for middle schoolers that will have two components. One will be the sort of a more emotional self-regulation of attention and the other that is more sort of study strategies, and we are moving along, we have done a couple of pilot tests and we are hoping to do a larger scale randomized controlled trial. We may have gotten thrown by COVID and need to delay that but we are hoping to get that into a school district were relatively soon to test it out, but I think that’s the kind of work that is going to be necessary.

Sucheta: Well, I would love to share with you may be off-line but I have developed a curriculum of teaching how to learn to learn explicitly to middle school and high school students through exercise-based training.

Dr. Willingham: Brilliant.

Sucheta: Understanding self, developing self-awareness and in this capacity to look at self from a perspective of the other, particularly shifting between evaluator’s mindset which is teacher and the do work’s mindset which is the student, and yes, I appreciate what you are saying, this idea that because it’s relatively new, now, we almost have this very dual mindset that those who are not showing proficiency somehow are lacking and those who don’t need my help to manage themselves are below the radar because we assume those skills are in place, so those who are suffering from these executive functioning skills not being in place somehow are becoming a burden to the classroom, but I appreciate that you are working towards it and I see that the educators are working on it. I just think the need is so grave, and to me, the content learning should be along the side with process learning.

Dr. Willingham: Absolutely.

Sucheta: So, Dr. Willingham, this has been nothing but joy and your wisdom and your incredible insights in particular warmth that you exude as you share your knowledge and invite everybody, you are very compassionate. I really appreciate that because I think being a teacher is a really hard job and we don’t give enough credit to our teachers and their hands are full, and as we bring more ideas and more ways, somehow, we should not leave them feeling that they have not done enough, so I love the way you are approaching this.

Dr. Willingham: Absolutely.

Sucheta: So, thank you again for your time.

Dr. Willingham: It’s a great pleasure chatting with you and we hopefully get to do it again sometime.

Sucheta: Sounds wonderful.

Producer: Well, I hope so as well. What a great conversation. Alright, that’s all the time we have for today. If you know of someone who might benefit from listening to today’s podcast – a teacher, principal, coach, parent or a student, we would be most grateful if you would kindly forward it to them.

So, on behalf of your host, Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Dr. Daniel Willingham and all of us at EXQ, thanks for listening and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.