The Surprising Reason Some Students Don’t Like School
It’s a universal truth that if you ask most students what they don’t like about school, their lists will be lengthy! While virtual school students won’t have the usual complaints about getting up early for long bus rides or eating cafeteria food, like most kids do, their lists will typically include items such as:
But ask cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham the same question and you’ll get a much more surprising answer:
Thinking Is Hard
- Retrieve information from their immediate environment and the vast factual storehouse of their long-term memory
- Combine that information in new ways in their more limited, short-term working memory
- Imagine solutions based on those new combinations
So, even though they’re naturally curious, students (and the rest of us, too!) will avoid thinking—unless the learning conditions are right.
What Are the Right Conditions for Thinking?
They’re the conditions or activities that allow students to experience the pleasurable rush of solving problems—whether those problems are algebra equations or struggling to understand Shakespeare’s sonnets. In fact, neuroscientists believe that the pleasurable rush may be the actual rush of chemicals produced by the brain’s natural reward system. Remember how it feels to get that last crossword, Sudoku, or Jeopardy answer? Well, students love that feeling of success just as much as you do.
So, when students dislike school, Willingham says what they’re actually disliking are the conditions that rob thinking of its pleasure, such as:
- Working on problems that are too easy or too difficult. If a problem is too easy, your student will get no pleasure in solving it. If the problem appears too difficult, your student will shut down the thought process because it seems to offer no pleasurable payoff. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the problems (and the porridge) have to be “just right.”
- Tackling problems that assume too much background knowledge. We’ve all faced this one before, but think of it from a second-grader’s viewpoint. Asked to solve “What is 18 × 7?” in her head, she’ll need to know not only that 8 × 7 is 56 but also the procedure for doing the math. Lacking even one piece of required background knowledge, she’ll be unable to solve the problem. If this happens often enough, you’ll end up with a student who dislikes school.
- Working on problems that exceed the limits of working memory. Working memory is the limited “space” where ideas are briefly held and manipulated. It can get quickly overcrowded by “multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept to new material (unless the concept is quite simple).”
As working memory becomes crowded, thinking becomes increasingly difficult. To put it another way:
How Parents and Learning Coaches Can Help
Collaboration is the key. As a parent or Learning Coach in a virtual school, you’re in an ideal position to know that your student becomes frustrated when assignments are too hard or bored when they’re too easy. You’ll also know when learning conditions are “just right” for giving your student that pleasurable rush of problem-solving success.
With your help and feedback, virtual school teachers can better understand your individual student’s thought processes and help ensure the very best conditions for thinking, learning, and liking school. We hope these insights from cognitive psychology will help you support your child’s education and allow you to become the best Learning Coach you can be.
How have you helped your student push beyond the hard parts of learning to achieve the excitement of problem solving? Share your tips in the comments to inspire other Learning Coaches!