In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening, President Obama boasted of the American way of education, claiming, our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world?” Little did he know that in Headley house earlier that day, a group of Carleton College faculty and students had a lively book group discussion about that very topic, inspired by Daniel Willingham’s book, Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.
Combining his scientific and psychological background in his book, Willingham offers an explanation for why students hate school and a normative remedy. In a daring departure from the now-popular educational theories that support individual learning styles, Willingham establishes the importance of universal fundamentals that have been left behind in order to make room for abstract goals like critical thinking and creative aptitude. He upholds the value of seemingly antiquated practices like drilling and memorizing facts. Willingham underscores the necessity of background skills as a prerequisite for ultimately desirable knowledge that deals with the abstract, such as reading comprehension. As a cognitive scientist, he points out that the brain is not naturally inclined to exert itself when it encounters something mentally challenging. However, when the task is challenging to a certain degree and if it is plausibly solvable, our brains become engaged.
As the purpose of Willingam’s book is to explore how the mind works and what this means for learning in the classroom, there was a wide variety of academic disciplines represented in the discussion, which included faculty from the Geology, Statistics, Art history, Classics and Math departments. Louis Newman, Professor of Religion and the director of the Learning and Teaching Center on campus, facilitated the conversation that later took a life of its own.
Joined by a common interest in the learning process, the group of faculty and students shared their own interpretations and anecdotes during the discussion.
There was a productive back-and-forth between perspectives, whether it was a professor sharing his teaching philosophy and a student responding with her own experience in the classroom, or a mineralogy student discussing mnemonics devices and an English major who found unique ways to memorize poetic jargon.
However, there was unanimous acknowledgment that different academic disciplines require varying amounts of the fact-based teaching prescribed by Willingham. For example, knowledge-based context is more crucial in a field like math, since even simple concepts like long division are impossible to comprehend without knowing how to add. In response, Francesca Chubb-Confer 11 pointed out that in English studies, a grasp of the terminology and stylistic knowledge is similarly essential for a deeper understanding and learning.
Eventually, broad and increasingly theoretical questions were born from the discussion: Is knowledge more important than imagination? What is the purpose of education? How can educators best engage and teach students? The underlying, similar attitudes surrounding these questions were evident–after all, the participants are all members of Carleton, which is, of course, committed to the liberal arts philosophy: a curriculum that challenges our students to learn broadly and think deeply.
The school website goes on to say that the most important thing our students learn is how to learn for a lifetime. Critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, effective communication: these are the tools that transform a collection of facts and figures into a way of understanding the world. One might imagine then that this debate on education was predictable, with the participants praising the importance of creativity over knowledge, or encouraging imagination instead of memorization. The conversation was surprisingly balanced: a professor who also volunteers in the Northfield school system extolled the virtues of standardized testing because it holds teachers to a basic standard that, in turn, makes higher and more complex levels of learning possible. One student pointed out the inevitable necessity of cramming to memorize and then demonstrate the knowledge of certain terms in order to succeed in an AP or IB curricular system.
As much as we value the importance of creativity and critical thinking, the group agreed with Willingham that knowledge of facts is the foundation of such skills.
During the discussion, Samantha Pivetz ’12 offered a quote from her third grade teacher that moved the entire group to hearty laughter: “You have to read 10,000 books before youre allowed to have an opinion.” Even this draconian bit of advice holds a grain of truth; according to Willingham and the Carleton reading group, the simultaneous procedures of absorbing hard facts and developing thinking abilities are what will make the exemplary American students President Obama can be proud of.
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