In “How to Wake Up Slumbering Minds: Will the discoveries of neuroscientists help us to think, learn and remember?,” Christopher F. Chabris reviews Daniel T. Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School?. Mr. Chabris says:
Elsewhere Mr. Willingham has his curious teacher ask: “Is drilling worth it?” The answer is yes, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics.
Why is the issue of “drill” discussed? For one thing, because drill and memorization are anathema in many schools of education, i.e., teacher prep colleges. One lady who talked to one of my classes at the University of Houston when I was getting my Texas teacher credentials in the 90s was proud of herself (you could see her puff up like a peacock) for calling worksheets “works#!ts.” Wow. Genius. I heard repeatedly that we should teach “understanding” or “creativity” but not memorization. I would hear, repeatedly, “drill” called “drill and kill.” Memorization was presented as being opposite to the goals we were supposed to be achieving.
But the notion that you need neuroscience to prove a point like that is absurd. Mr. Willingham does not need to write a book about it. (I’m not saying that he or his book is absurd — I don’t know his position on why he wrote his book nor do I know whether he thinks he proved something that was not proved before, or whether he thinks he merely added a new perspective to the issue.) The evidence that memorization helps is accessible to all by introspection and observation, and said evidence has been available for thousands of years. For the importance of drill and memorization to learning, we have a plethora of observations available to us: the process-oriented behavior of babies; the cognitive and psychological relationships between animals and humans; the role of drill in sports; the role of drill in learning speeches; the role of drill and repetition in learning our multiplication tables; our own personal experiences; etc. Yes, neuroscience adds to our knowledge of why memorization works, but it does not prove it nor does it address the issue on the level of ideas.
Mr. Chabris also reports that Mr. Willingham attacks the notion of “learning styles:”
The trendy notion that each person has a unique learning style comes under an especially withering assault. “How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?” asks Mr. Willingham’s hypothetical teacher. The disillusioning reply: “No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”
It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in “style,” researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as “auditory learners” and “visual learners.” Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.
But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum — at all levels of schooling — is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. “Specious,” for instance, means “seemingly logical, but actually fallacious” whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.
Amen. Even if we do have a “learning style” (which, yes, we might use in some situations or which could be a strength we could leverage in life or learning), a proper education is supposed to prepare us for adult life, so an education should make us learn how to use other “learning styles.”
What’s more, we might have a preference for some learning modality, but the world does not come at us in that single modality. Reality does not subordinate itself to us.
Driving is a visual experience, and you’d better be able to learn visually or you will get injured, die, or do the same to someone else. Traffic lights and stop lights are visual phenomena — they are not tactile, auditory, nor kinesthetic. We need to deal with the reality of driving, because it sure is not going to subordinate itself to our whims or demands.
In dealing with other people, there are times when we have to take in information by listening to someone or by reading something someone wrote down. We need to deal with it. Even if someone makes a multi-media presentation in a business meeting, we will miss information if we can’t grasp the message of each type of media.
Are we going to demand that fast-food service personnel write things down for us or dance a question out for us? That’s absurd. Or are we going to demand that they grasp what our order is as we dance it out? Absurd. Are we to learn to read by dancing or watching movies? Absurd.
We might learn a few things about dancing or martial arts or weight lifting or some sport by watching or reading, but the activities are kinesthetic, like it or not. These activities are learned, most fundamentally, by doing.
Consciousness is subordinate to reality; the external world is not subordinate to us, neither as a group nor individually.
What’s more, I doubt that we would have evolved to be focused on one modality, when we need all of them to survive.
Education misleads young minds and injures their lives when the students are branded with a “learning style” and it is pandered to. We might show students how to leverage a strength, but we should educate students to be able to learn in all “styles” — especially by writing and reading, since they are the only means of really developing a person’s conceptual abilities.
Caveat: In his book, Mr. Willingham draws some hasty, absurd conclusions about the role of reason in human life. You can read some excerpts on Amazon. He says we are “bad at thinking” and says “the brain is not set up for very efficient thinking” (p. 7).
Then why are we so much more efficacious at living as adults than as children? And why are we so much more efficacious at living than people three thousand years ago? And why are we so much more efficacious at living than other animals?
Because of reason. Because of the conclusions we have automatized from reasoning.
If thinking were not efficient and if we were bad at it, we clearly would not have evolved to do it. With all the evidence of history, how one can say we are bad at thinking and not efficient at it I don’t understand. Think about some of the products of thinking through history: hunting; tracking; making weapons; domesticating plants and animals; agriculture; agricultural tools; building; political theory; art; modern technology and medicine. They all seem efficient and pro-survival to me.
Reason is volitional and we are finite and limited, so of course we are not omniscient and always right. The fact is that we have to learn how to reason correctly — but we still have a lot to learn about how reason functions, as the human race is still in its infancy of understanding reason — and we are not right automatically, by nature of reason as volitional.
Because some people fail to grasp this, because some people can’t think well, because some people draw bad or specious conclusions — all is evidence for reason being volitional, not for people being bad at thinking on principle or thinking being inefficient on principle.
To construe ‘the human brain is set up for volitional consciousness’ as ‘the brain is not set up for efficient thinking’ — or to not see the former for the sake of wanting to see the latter — is wrong.
Mr. Willingham also said that the brain was built to avoid thinking rather than to think, some of his “evidence” being (1) we tend to go by memory when we can instead of thinking things through afresh and (2) we do not reason out every little detail of life.
However, these facts, I’d say, show not what Mr. Willingham claims, but they show that we train the subconscious to respond to the world in order to leave us free to think — to think about new things, to look at old things in new ways, to check what we are doing conceptually, etc. Automatizing conclusions and methods helps keep our conscious mind free to focus on what’s important and pressing — escaping a predator by thinking on our feet; tracking and killing some prey by thinking on our feet; inventing a weapon (e.g., the bow and arrow) to kill a dangerous source of meat (e.g., the cave bear) from afar; designing a building or developing the theory of natural, individual rights.
Reason and volition helped our consciousness adapt to different environments and therefore helped mankind survive.
The “evidence” Mr. Willingham brought up shows, I would say, how the brain engages in a division of labor, and how reason is so important and efficient that the brain has evolved to have mental functions put in other aspects of consciousness or parts of the brain so as not to bog down or overwhelm reason; the brain has evolved to have resources arranged and to have a division of labor that allows best use of reason for survival.
The human brain and consciousness have evolved not so that we could avoid thought, but so that we could think as much as possible and make the best use of thought.
N.B. Mr. Chabris reports that:
It should be said that Mr. Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is not in favor of merely making learning “fun” or “creative.” He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student’s reading comprehension and critical thinking. Such a view makes Mr. Willingham something of an iconoclast, since 21st-century educational theory is ruled by concepts like “multiple intelligences” and “learning styles.”
Update (6:45 PM): I hope my criticisms would be shown unnecessary if I read the whole of Mr. Wilingham’s book. But if so, I don’t see why he would make some of the claims he made at the beginning of his book. Why would anyone state one thing, and then hold the polar opposite position later in one’s own book?
I would go beyond Mr. Willingham and say that (1) the mind functions efficiently, and that (2) it is an efficient tool for man’s survival. And I’d say — as I implied above — that (2) is evidence for (1).
Not also that we become more and more efficient at thinking after we are trained in it — which training is necessary, as human consciousness is volitional…which is why we need education in first place.
Could Mr. Willingham’s arguments also lead to the conclusion that we are bad at and inefficient at fighting, farming, and hunting?