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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Is the Brain a Bit of a Slacker?

By Peter DeWitt — March 05, 2014 5 min read
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Does new information that is unrelated to your passions require extra effort? Perhaps you’d rather sit back and do something other than...think about putting together a new table from IKEA with several hundred parts. Or you’d rather go outside and work in your garden rather than read the newest novel on the N.Y. Times Best Seller list.

For full disclosure, I have some areas that are just about the last thing I want to do in this world, and other times when I can’t seem to focus my attention for more than five minutes. You must see this behavior in your students. Perhaps some of your students are unmotivated, because they either don’t see the relevance in a new topic, or they don’t feel as though they have a say in what they’re learning. Students who love science, don’t see the value in learning about the Civil War. Students who love to read graphic novels, lack the interest in learning a new math concept in Algebra.

Perhaps there is now some research to help shift your teaching, and help assist their level of thinking.

In a new article John Hattie and cognitive psychologist Greg Yates suggest that the brain is a bit unmotivated. The Listener, which is published in New Zealand, quoted the two educational researchers as saying, “The human brain is a bit of a slacker, and built to tune out every 10 to 15 minutes, and take the path of least resistance when left to its own devices.”

The two go on to say that, “We are built, in fact to dodge thinking which carries a significant cognitive load - as much as possible; we’d rather fall back on what we already know.” They believe that the human brain is primarily a, “social machine,” and learn by “watching, imitating and interacting.”

Hattie and Yates are using the research of U.S. psychology professor Daniel Willingham. They believe, along with Willingham, that, “By nature, we try to avoid thinking but strive to solve problems by using our memories...learning proceeds quickly and efficiently when what is new builds directly upon what is already secured.

This is not a new concept for many teachers. We have all learned about scaffolding, and the importance of previous knowledge. The issue is how to we, as educators, provide these experiences to students if there isn’t alignment from one year to the next? And, how do we shift our instruction to see if we can inspire a student who loves science to grasp on to a science-like concept involving the Civil War, because it doesn’t mean that kids shoudn’t study the Civil War if they are science fanatics -we just need to think harder about the ‘hook’ into the topic for them.

Contrarily, if you are not a believer or proponent of standards, how can you ensure that you will be able to build upon, what Hattie and Yates suggest, are the “Banks of prior knowledge”, that children already have, knowing that those students will enter the classroom with diverse experiences at a variety of levels.

Entering School with an Open Mind

This all, of course, leads back to birth. Hattie and Yates both believe strongly that if a student does not learn to read by the age of 8, it is unlikely they will learn how to read sucessfully. Much of this supports the research of the experiences children learn from birth to 4, and the idea that parents can help support the learning experiences of their children by merely talking and reading to them.

Their research goes on to highlight what happens when children enter preschool and those who do not. One of the characteristics of those children who are enrolled in preschool before they enter kindergarten is that they are used to the school experience, and are open to the new adventure. Those students who have not had a preschool experience are more cautious, and therefore, a little less outgoing. Of course, if their parents exposed them to various experiences, and took them on trips or engaged them through dialogue perhaps they are a bit better equipped.

The interesting thing about some of the research exposed in the Listener article is that they said that five year olds enter into school believing they are the “best at everything,” and that they “don’t compare themselves to others.” Much of that begins to change in their first couple of years of schooling, which brings us to the conversation about numbers.

How Schools Compare Children

Sadly, our culture of accountability encourages schools to compare children together. However, it is a practice that has been happening long before accountability came into our lives. It’s not just teachers and school leaders who compare children, parents have done it as well. It’s human nature.

If you grow up in a family with siblings, you have all been compared to your brother or sister one time or two. Teachers who have had multiple children from the same family have a habit of comparing one sibling to the other, and even lump them into categories of those who struggle, those who are average, and those who excel.

Yes, it is true that some students struggle with school, but I wonder how much the percentage would go down if we changed the way we taught...and thought. I would also venture to guess that some of those students who struggle academically have strengths that we may never see in the classroom. They key is to either figure out how to approach their learning in a strengths-based manner, or help improve their social-emotional skills so they don’t give up on the very things they are successful at.

We know that not all teachers are created equally. That is not a knock on the profession but a reality. For students, it does not have to mean the end of the world. Hattie and Yates suggest that if a student has a less than effective teacher at school, it can be compensated by a caring adult at home. They also suggest that it can be the other way around, with an uncaring adult at home, and an outstanding teacher in the classroom.

In the End

We need to continue to push the envelope and challenge our own thinking about the way we teach, and the way students learn. We can’t simply fall back on suggesting that certain children hate math if the way we teach it is not inspiring. We also need to address the idea that most children enter schooling with a love to learn, but many start to fall off the learning wagon at way too young of an age. Accountability, scripted lessons, and constricting standards that are not age appropriate do not help, but we also, as professionals, have a responsibility in the way we talk with and teach our students.

Perhaps knowing the brain is a bit of a slacker can help us connect with more of those students who we see slacking too often.

“Plus One” Advice from John Hattie:

  • Give students regular feedback
  • Help them set ambitious goals
  • Show them what success looks like
  • Provide students with exemplars before the lessons begin

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.