September 1st, 2009

Properties of Thinking


I’m reading a great book. This probably won’t be the only blog entry about it. The title is long: Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. The cognitive scientist, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, writes about how the mind works to an audience of basic educators. Even so, the book clearly and compellingly explains mental functions equally relevant in the college classroom. Here’s an example.

“Your brain serves many purposes, and thinking is not the one it serves best.” (p. 5) Three properties of thinking justify that statement. First, thinking is slow when compared to the speed with which the brain visually assesses a situation. Say, you head into your kitchen to fix supper. You take the whole scene in at a glance; you see the breakfast dishes in the sink, the crock pot on the sideboard, the grocery list on the fridge. You don’t have to figure anything out. You know what happened in this place this morning and what needs to happen now.

Next, thinking is effortful. You don’t have to work to see the status of things in the kitchen. In contrast, thinking takes concentration. When I’m trying to write, I need quiet. I need a private space and no interruptions. I must work with the words, and I can’t do that if I’m thinking about what we’re having for supper.

Finally, Willingham notes that thinking is uncertain. When you survey the kitchen, you don’t make many mistakes. You don’t confuse the crockpot with the coffee pot. But with thinking you can come up with a solution, look at it the next day and say to yourself, “what was I thinking!” And then there are those times when we think diligently about something and still can’t come up with a solution.

I suspect at some level, we are aware that thinking has these properties. But the reminder is useful. Teaching and learning both require a lot of thinking. . .perhaps we should be a bit more patient with ourselves and our students today.