We are all familiar with the picture of a classroom full of kids passing notes to each other, doodling on their desks, throwing spitballs, staring out the window—anything but listening to the teacher droning on at the front of the room. (Think Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, but remember that this problem begins a lot earlier than high school.) There is a new book out by cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, that has some valuable insights on how to make classes more interesting to students.
Dr. Willingham’s contribution is simple but brilliant. He asks what truly motivates children. His answer is that the type of motivation that will really translate into kids paying attention in class and learning actively is the type of motivation that comes from the pure cognitive pleasure of solving problems:
Solving problems brings pleasure. When I say “problem solving” in this book, I mean any cognitive work that succeeds; it might be understanding a difficult passage of prose, planning a garden, or sizing up an investment opportunity. There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking.
He continues: “It’s notable that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. . . . [T]here’s not great pleasure in simply knowing the answer.”
Dr. Willingham advises that schools can accomplish this by setting up their lessons in a very deliberate way. Lessons should start with a problem of a specific kind: one that has the right level of difficulty, so that students do have to make a cognitive effort, but so that it is still within their capabilities to in fact solve the problem. He advises educators to try to create a meaningful question in the student’s mind, before offering an answer: “Sometimes I think that we as teachers are so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.”
In math, for instance, to take a simple example—before we teach children order of operations, we motivate that material by making the problem that it solves real to the students. We ask the class to calculate the answer to the math problem 5 + 10 x 3. Some of the students come up with an answer of 35, some with 45. Students are puzzled as to why there is this split between the two different answers. It piques their curiosity. When the teacher explains the rules for stipulating which order of operations is correct, those rules are answering a question that they are now very interested to learn, and so they will connect with and retain the information. By contrast, if one were to teach the rules governing order of operations without taking that extra moment to highlight the problem the rules solve, the students would be disconnected from and uninterested in the material. It would seem like a set of arbitrary rules to be memorized, rather than a useful tool.
The pattern might play out differently, in, say, a history class. There, the “detective story principle” might mean asking students to think about their favorite things—foods, places, friends, clothes—and then asking them what would make them give all of those up. When the teacher goes on to discuss the asceticism of the medieval monks, she takes care to pique their curiosity, based on this initial discussion. Why would the medieval monk actually want to give up all of his favorite things? That question becomes a mystery that the child wants to solve, and which his mind pursues throughout the history lesson designed to answer it.
As Dr. Willingham so aptly reminds us, it’s the question that first piques our interest, and motivates us to seek and internalize the answer. Being told an answer divorced from the question is far less effective. It fails to capitalize on the natural pattern of human cognition, which seeks answers in response to questions.
At LePort we have come to call this the “detective story principle”. Good educators across the globe are likely to recognize this same principle in their own teaching, though they may call it by different names.
The two examples above are from two individual classes in two different subjects. But once an education specialist is on the look out for this kind of opportunity to raise and then satisfy questions in students’ minds, we have found at LePort that she will discover such opportunities everywhere.
It is by no means a simple task to structure every lesson in this fashion, and there are plenty of wrinkles waiting to be ironed out. But Dr. Willingham’s insight names the principle, which is a big step forward. In our own classes, where we have applied this principle, we have often seen it make the difference between a child who gazes out the window, and a child who learns eagerly and loves school.