How to motivate students to enjoy learning - part 2

Do you ever wonder how students really think? This blog post series will answer one of the most important questions in education history: how to motivate students to enjoy learning?

Students are busy bees and have so much to think about. It’s a pity that they won’t think about that one important thing: your class. So how do you get their attention?

Reading the book “Why don’t students like school” by Daniel T. Willingham inspired me to write a short series of blog posts on this topic. I highly recommend to read this book! (This is the second post in the series, here’s a link to part 1.)

In order to encourage your students to learn, we have to understand their brain and their thinking. How do they think? What do they think about? How does the student’s peculiar brain work?

In this post, my focus is on this important question. How can you teach students the skills they need when standardized test require only facts? Sounds rather interesting, don’t you think?

Factual knowledge, useful or useless?

When we think about standardized tests, we think about knowledge, facts and grades. They often leave no opportunity for students to analyze and synthesize or any form of feedback. Time for teaching skills is suppressed by preparing for standardized tests. So, you tell me, how important is fact learning nowadays?

Of course, you can’t say that having students memorize lists of dry facts is not enriching. You need some factual knowledge to teach a student skills such as analysis or synthesis. These skills do require some extensive factual knowledge. As Daniel T. Willingham came to the conclusion: “Factual knowledge must precede skill.”

For teachers, evaluating factual knowledge is due to this one word in education: accountability. In most countries the accountability refers to big level tests which contain, of course, multiple choice questions that usually require recall of facts.

What do the answers on these questions prove? Do students really know enough about, for example, history, by answering a fact question? We want our students to think about topics, not just to memorize facts.

Not convinced? What about this: when someone shows evidence of thinking critically, we consider that person well educated and smart. When someone just shouts out facts without context, we consider that person boring and a show-off.

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Nevertheless, you can’t understand someone, without knowing the vocabulary of the language or you might understand the words that someone is saying, but if you lack the conceptual knowledge, you can’t come to a right comprehension and you are still nowhere. This means that background information is useful.

On the other hand, you might say that living in this world changes our way of learning. You can find any factual knowledge you need instantly on the internet. Besides, information changes so quickly that your knowledge of certain facts is outdated in five years. Isn’t that scary?

So we’re back to critical thinking. Isn’t is better to have students work on evaluating all the information available on the internet rather than trying to save a small part in your memory?

Background knowledge and understanding reading comprehensions

Daniel T. Willingham has shown us that factual knowledge isn’t just something to throw away.

Background knowledge helps you understand what someone is talking or writing about. If a vocabulary word is missing from your long-term memory, you’ll likely be confused. But the need of background knowledge is bigger than the need for definitions.

Take a look at the first example (taken from Willingham’s book):

“I’m not trying out my new barbecue when the boss comes to dinner!” Mark yelled.

What do you think it means? If you have the right background information you should be able to understand the sentence. There are two pieces of background information in this example:

  1. People often make mistakes the first time they use new appliance.
  2. Mark would like to impress his boss.

All writers leave gaps. They assume that the reader has the needed background knowledge to understand his text. Now take a look at the second example:

“I’m not trying out my new barbecue when the boss comes to dinner!” Mark yelled. Then he added, “let me make clear that by boss I mean our immediate supervisor. Not the president of the company, nor any of the other supervisors intervening. And I’m using dinner in the local vernacular, not to mean ‘noontime meal’, as it is used in some parts of the United States. And when I said barbecue, I was speaking imprecisely, because I really meant grill, because barbecue generally refers to slower roasting, whereas I plan to cook over high heat. Anyway, my concern, of course, is that my inexpercience with the barbecue (that is, grill) will lead to inferior food, and I hope to impress the boss.”

What’s the difference? Writers just can’t include all factual details in a text. If they did, prose would be exorbitantly long and boring.

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Background knowledge for cognitive skills

We know now that background knowledge makes you a better reader, but what does that mean for your thinking? As a teacher, you would want your students to think critically and logically. Just like reading, this isn’t possible without background knowledge.

When students face a problem, they will first search for a solution in their memory. This is very likely to be effective because you remember the solution to a problem that worked the last time.

Learning to drive a car takes time and thinking, but when you got it, it goes so smooth. Think about the first time you ride to your work and now. What is the difference? The first time there is a challenge: new roads and traffic situations you haven’t seen before. Today you rely on your memory of driving to your job every day, mastering traffic blocks and passing dangerous intersections. You just dive into your long term memory and find the solution you have already used some time ago.

This shows that background information is indeed important for cognitive thinking.

Factual knowledge improves your memory

“When it comes to knowledge, those who have more, gain more.”
- Daniel T. Willingham

Experiments have proven the benefit of background knowledge to memory. People with more background knowledge about a certain topic are able to learn more quickly and to memorize new things more quickly. People who know more about cars, understand better a racing movie than people who don’t. It makes sense, doesn’t it?

Take a look at William’s examples:

Example 1
Motor learning is the change in capacity to perform skilled movements that achieve behavioral goals in the environment. A fundamental and unresolved question is whether there is a separate neutral system for representing learned sequential motor responses. Defining that system with brain imaging and other methods requires a careful description of what specifically is being learned for a given sequence task.

Example 2
A chiffon cake replaces butter - the traditional fat in cakes - with oil. A fundamental and unresolved question in baking is when to make chiffon cake. Answering this question with expert tasting panels and other methods requires a careful description of what characteristics are desired for a cake.

Which one is easier to remember the next day? The second paragraph is easier to understand because you can tie it to things you already know.

In short: having factual knowledge in long-term memory makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.

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Classroom tips for teachers

It is true that facts without the skills to use them aren’t worth much. It is equally true that you can’t achieve thinking skills without factual knowledge. Knowledge and skills exist together. We must help students learn background knowledge. What are the implications for the classroom?

1. What knowledge should I teach?

When you start to specify what must be taught and what can be omitted, you are grading information on its importance. Someone might find historical events more important than scientific achievements. The other may feel it’s the other way around.

The importance of information is not an effective way to decide whether information should be taught. What about: what knowledge produces the greatest cognitive benefit?

First, for reading, students have to know whatever information writers assume they know and leave out. The knowledge will vary depending on what students read. The minimum target would be students being able to read a daily newspaper or reading a book on serious topics, such as science and politics.

Besides general reading, students need knowledge of subject areas such as science, history, mathematics, etc. Reading requires basic knowledge. You don’t need to know much about a word, as long as you understand that word when it’s used in an article.

Of course, students can’t know everything, so what exactly should they know? Students must learn the concepts that come up again and again and again. The unifying ideas of each discipline. In Willingham’s book, educational thinkers have suggested that a limited number of ideas should be taught in greater depth, beginning in the early grades and carrying through the curriculum for five years.

2. Make sure that your students have enough knowledge when you require critical thinking

Critical thinking requires background information. It makes sense to think about whether your students have the necessary background knowledge to implement a critical thinking assignment.

Think before you ask a question concerning your following lesson. The fact that you still have to give that lesson, means that your students probably won’t have enough background knowledge to answer it.

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3. Little knowledge is better than no knowledge

Of course, your students are not instantly masterminds. Don’t worry, you usually don’t need to have detailed knowledge of a concept to be able to understand its meaning. A shallow knowledge will often be enough. It’s a start and you can built on it.

4. Get your students to read

Books expose children to more facts and to a wider vocabulary than any other activity. There’s something else: data indicate that people who read for pleasure, enjoy cognitive benefits throughout their lifetime.

So, how do I get my students to read? Well, luckily, I have already written a post about that. Take a look at these 10 tips to motivate students to read.

5. Acquiring knowledge can be incidental

Good news! The learning of factual knowledge can simply happen by exposure. Think about every single thing you have learned just by reading books, magazines, talking to people or watching the news on television?

Try to create a lookalike situation at school where students just encounter knowledge. This information can be the vocabulary a teacher is using, while he encounters some technological problems.

6. Start early

A student who starts at a disadvantage in terms of knowledge will fall even further behind unless there is some intervention. Intervention and differentiation are very important to get a student back on track. With some students, the home environment plays a huge role concerning knowledge. What language or dialects do the parents use? Do parents ask their children questions, and do they listen to them? Do they make books available?

This means that even before a student meets his first teacher, he might already be far behind. Leveling the playing field is one of the greatest challenges for a teacher.

7. Meaningful knowledge

Knowledge only pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another. This means you can’t just give your students some lists of facts to learn. Knowledge must be meaningful.

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We can’t forget that your experiences also have an impact on knowledge. Wilingham describes it like this: ‘The devil is not wise because he is the devil. The devil is wise because he’s old.“

More blog posts on this topic will follow. I’ll keep you updated!

Lucie Renard

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