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Motivating Students May 6, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, Philosophy, Science.
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Truth be told I have never put much stock in the idea that students have different learning styles for which I must make accommodation in class. Philosophy is really about argument analysis and one can’t learn it without formulating hypothesis, assessing logical and conceptual structure, seeking counter-examples, and trying to map hypotheses onto the world.

It is not really about “style”. Either you do philosophy this way or you’re not doing philosophy. So I go through lots of arguments, encourage students to learn them, and make them try their hand at testing their own hypothesis by the end of the semester.

My reluctance to embrace this fashionable idea of learning styles is supported by cognitive science according to Daniel Willingham in his book Why Don’t Students Like School.

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.”

Willingham uses research in cognitive science and neurophysiology to try to answer the puzzling question why students, who are intrinsically curious when young, quickly get bored with school. And Willingham’s conclusion is disheartening for anyone who thinks there is an easy solution to the problem of unmotivated students.

So why don’t students like school? According to Mr. Willingham, one major reason is that what school requires students to do — think abstractly — is in fact not something our brains are designed to be good at or to enjoy.

Our minds like to focus on the concrete, which is why stories are so important to us (as Nina has pointed out many times on this blog). We gain genuine expertise when we can generalize to the point that information learned in one context can be applied in many others.

And we can acquire this skill only by having available to us a large storehouse of facts and examples—in other words experience.

Mr. Willingham notes that students cannot apply generic “critical thinking skills” (another voguish concept) to new material unless they first understand that material. And they cannot understand it without the requisite background knowledge. The same is true of learning to read: Trying to use “reading strategies” — like searching for the main idea in a passage — will be futile if you don’t know enough facts to fill in what the author has left unsaid.

If Willingham is right, it makes an awful lot of faddish theories about teaching (and fancy technology) a waste of time. And motivating students is a matter of finding examples that keep students interested in content.

Willingham has a very useful website and his book is on my summer reading list.



1. poonam patisamant - May 7, 2009

You are a absolutely correct on that one. Even primitive man told stories while the whole tribe sat huddled together around a crackling fire. And the ability of experienced elders to motivate the youth to heights of bravery and wise decision making thanks to the parables and aphorisms they have at their disposal is truly a marvellous thing.

Even when a shaman dies in a rain forest it is like a whole library burning down since all that knowledge of medicine and magic dies with him.

The concrete is the father of the abstract. Only from situations do we go on to interaction with the universal principles (also known as the wisdom of the race which is stored in the lexical structure of language).

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