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Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think

Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think

Dan Willingham discussed this article with EdNext Editor-in-chief Marty West on the EdNext Podcast.

In 2002 I was invited to give a talk to 500 school teachers. The invitation puzzled me, as my research at the time had nothing to do with education; I was a psychologist studying how different parts of the brain support different types of human learning. I mentioned this to the person who invited me, and she said, “We know. We want you to tell us about cognitive psychology. We think our teachers would be interested.” I shrugged, accepted the invitation, and forgot about it. Six months later (and days before I was to give the talk) I was wondering what had possessed me to say yes. Surely teachers would already know anything I could tell them about human memory, or attention, or motivation that would be relevant to teaching. I felt anxious and was sure the presentation would be a disaster.

But it wasn’t. Teachers thought it was interesting and relevant to their practice. Most surprising to me, they were unfamiliar with the content, even though it came from the very first class in human cognition a college student would take. I wondered: how could teachers not know the ABCs of cognition?

Yet the following 15 years have shown that experience was not a fluke. I’ve written four books and dozens of articles and have delivered scores of talks for teachers on the basics of cognition. In so doing, I’ve addressed what teachers saw as a need; what I haven’t done is think about why the need exists. Shouldn’t teachers learn how children think during their training? In this essay I consider why they don’t, and what we might do about it.

What Should Teachers Know?

Is my experience representative? Are most teachers unaware of the latest findings from basic science—in particular, psychology—about how children think and learn? Research is limited, but a 2006 study by Arthur Levine indicated that teachers were, for the most part, confident about their knowledge: 81 percent said they understood “moderately well” or “very well” how students learn. But just 54 percent of school principals rated the understanding of their teachers that high. And a more recent study of 598 American educators by Kelly Macdonald and colleagues showed that both assessments may be too optimistic. A majority of the respondents held misconceptions about learning—erroneously believing, for example, that children have learning styles dominated by one of the senses, that short bouts of motor-coordination exercises can improve the integration of the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and that children are less attentive after consuming sugary drinks or snacks.

But perhaps when teachers say they “know how children learn,” they are not talking about learning from a scientific perspective but about craft knowledge. They take the question to mean, “Do you know how to ensure that children in your classroom learn?” which is not the same as understanding the theoretical principles of psychology. In fact, in a 2012 study of 500 new teachers by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), respondents said that their training was too theoretical and didn’t prepare them for teaching “in the real world.” Maybe they have a point. Perhaps teachers don’t need generalized theories and abstractions, but rather ready-to-go strategies—not information about how children learn, but the best way to teach fractions; not how children process negative emotion, but what to say to a 3rd grader who is dejected about his reading.

Most education researchers disagree, and they offer a reasonable argument. Some situations a teacher will encounter are predictable—a future teacher of 4th graders knows she will teach fractions—but many other situations are not. All teachers face problems for which their education leaves them unprepared: a 2nd grader goes to a corner of the room and spins, or a group of 6th graders laughs at a classmate because he whispers to himself when he reads. At these unpredictable moments, the teacher must improvise. How she responds to a child in a novel situation will depend, in part, on her beliefs about the cognitions, emotions, and motivations of children. In fact, future teachers have views about how children learn even before they begin their teacher-education programs. One goal of teacher education, then, is to ensure that these beliefs are as accurate as possible.

Whether for this reason or others, most teacher-education programs require some coursework in educational psychology. More important, every state requires that teachers pass an exam as part of the licensing process, and psychological content appears on most of these tests. For example, the publisher’s study guide for the Praxis II exam (used in more than 30 states) includes a list of psychological principles that test-takers should know (such as “how knowledge is constructed”), as well as the work of theorists (such as Bandura, Piaget, Bruner) and psychological terms (such as schema, zone of proximal development, operant conditioning). Two sample questions from this exam appear in the sidebar.

In sum, many U.S. teachers report that their education is overly theoretical and not of great utility. It’s clear that they are required to learn some basic principles of psychology as part of that education, but it is not clear that practicing teachers remember what they were taught.