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Why We Need To Teach Kids How To Study
Book Review: Dan Willingham's New Book, Outsmart Your Brain
Learning is hard. It takes effort to hear something new, permanent etch that information in your brain, retrieve that information at will, prove to others that you know that information, and then continue to manipulate that information in a variety of real life situations.
Although these tasks are the very essence of education, the science of learning is rarely taught in school. Rather, students come up with their own methods for learning information, none of which are very effective.
In an article for Edutopia, a website run by the George Lucas Foundation, I interviewed Dan Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia specializing in neuroscience and education and author of the new book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy. For an hour, we talked about what research says is the best way for students to become better students.
Willingham’s book is a must-read for parents and teachers, who guide work-resistant teens. It’s full of great practical tips, like the best place to sit in the lecture hall (the front row), why you should never be late to class (that’s when the professor will explain the point of the lecture), and how to remember a fact when under pressure in an exam situation (close your eyes and think about where you were when you studied that information.) He also busts through a number of education myths.
For the past few years, hundreds of articles have proclaimed the benefits of handwriting notes, based on one high-profile study. Willingham is less convinced by that research, saying that typing out notes isn’t necessarily less helpful than handwriting notes. For Willingham, the real problem with laptops is the distraction factor. Students cannot resist watching videos or playing games while in class, distracting themselves and everyone around him. That’s why he’s had a “no laptop” policy in his classroom for years.
Willingham explains that true learning is a skill that must be developed, like mastering push-ups. To become really skilled at that exercise, one must do push-ups everyday, and not just the easy kind. You have to do the kind where you push off the ground and clap. And then do a hundred of them.
But most students don’t work hard naturally. The night before an exam, they sprawl out on their bed and skim over the printouts of the teacher’s power point slides. They might have music or a YouTube video playing in the background. That method doesn’t work, Willingham says, and provides scientific evidence to back up every statement.
Long before that late night study sessions, students should have broken down the teacher’s lectures to their essential key bits, taken notes without distraction, completed the assigned reading using a proven reading method, and studied in a quiet place using flashcards or Quizlet. Willingham breaks down each one of those tasks and gives advice about optimal methods.
This message — you have to work hard to perform better and be successful — is subtly subversive. I’ve been to countless school presentations where the superintendent or another school leader told parents that students no longer need to know things, because all facts are easily found on wikipedia. Now, students just needed critical thinking skills, these school leaders explained, like those skills - whatever they are — can be developed without knowing the years of the Civil War or the name of our third president or the chemical composition of water.
Education nihilism — the belief that students no longer need to know things — is responsible for dumbing down schools for millions of children and is partly to blame for the massive college dropout numbers — 33 percent of undergraduates never finish their college degree. College still requires those traditional education skills of listening to a professor talk for one to three hours and taking very hard tests. High schools aren't training kids to pass the final exam for Biology 101.
I asked Willingham whether these skills should be taught before students go to college, in a standalone class in high schools. He thought that these skills should be woven into every class as early as middle school. Teachers should be guiding students on this path to knowledge in every English and science class.
“Learning is Hard” flies in the face of the other prevalent message in education circles, which is “learning is pointless.” That statement is revolutionary, for sure, but it’s not the conclusion of his book.
Willingham explains that we should embrace doing something hard because it gets easier the more we learn the right methods. When things get easier, then we’re successful and find the experience more rewarding. The guy who has mastered the art of difficult push-ups will keep doing push-ups and have more fun doing it. Like the push-up guy, students will find that when they study correctly and effectively, that learning will become fun.
“Learning new things brings the same sense of adventure and satisfaction as traveling somewhere exotic, seeing the local flora and fauna, meeting people, and observing how they live,” Willingham writes. He hopes that people see his book as a travel kit and go exploring.
I do, too.
When psychology professors Angela Duckworth and Ethan Kross began working on a secondary school curriculum that merged the science of academic self-regulation and the latest research on student learning, they felt that a critical piece was missing: the development of good study habits.
“That’s when they called me and said: ‘Would you be interested in working on this project?’” says Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia specializing in neuroscience and education—with a focus on memory and learning—and author of the new book, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy.
Once Willingham joined the team, developing and distributing a research-based study skills curriculum geared to middle and high school students, teachers began asking him for printed resources. “It would be great to have something written, something to put in our hands so that when you’re not here, we have another resource,” Willingham says, recounting a typical conversation with teachers. “I did a pretty exhaustive search of what was available on study skills, and I didn’t love any of them. There really was a need for something that’s up-to-date and comprehensive.”
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