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Jan 19

October 14 Vision


Why Students Don't Like School by Daniel T. Willingham

How do you teach a student whose “brain is not designed for thinking, but for the avoidance of thought”?

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few people engage in it.” ~ Henry Ford

In his book Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel T. Willingham, professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, claims the main reason many students do not like school is that contrary to popular belief, the human mind is not designed for thinking. Willingham claims that humans don’t thing very often because our brains are designed not for thought, but for avoidance of thought.

How is this possible? Isn’t our ability to think, to problem solve, and to be critical thinkers what sets us apart from other primates?

Willingham offers the following thought provoking theories about thinking;

1. Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking.

2. Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought, but for avoidance of thought.

3. Thinking is not only effortful, as Ford noted, it’s also slow and unreliable.

4. The brain uses memory to save you from thinking, because the brain is not very good at thinking.

5. Your brain serves many purposes, and thinking is not one it does best. Your brain also supports the ability to see and to move, and those functions operate much more efficiently and reliably than our ability to think.

Willingham posits that there are three problems with thinking: it is slow, effortful, and uncertain. Illustrating his theories, he compares thinking with vision, movement, and memory, and that shows thinking is less reliable than vision, while our movement system is more efficient, reliable, and functions effortless.

1. Thinking is slow. Upon entering a room, the visual system instantaneously and naturally analyzes and comprehends an extremely complex picture. The spatial distances of the objects in the room are calculated enabling movement throughout the room. Within micro-seconds, the colors of the room are identified, the dimensions of the room are processed, and this forms within the mind an amazingly accurate picture of the room.

In comparison to the visual system, when given a unique problem your thinking system does not instantly calculate with extreme accuracy the answer. Your thinking system might not even get you close; your solution to a problem may be far from correct. In fact, your thinking system may not produce an answer at all.

Why is our visual system so efficient? In his book Brain Rules, John Medina states that it is no accident that it is accurate and proficient since most of our brain’s real estate is devoted to vision taking up half of our brain’s resources, and vision is by far our most dominant sense. The extra brainpower is needed because seeing is actually more difficult than playing chess or solving calculus problems, Medina writes.

2. Thinking is effortful. You don’t have to try to see, but thinking takes concentration. You can perform other tasks while you see, but you can’t think about something else while working on a problem.

3. Thinking is uncertain. Your visual system seldom make mistakes, and when it does, you usually think you see something similar to what is actually out there-you’re close.

So, if we are not good thinkers, how do we manage our daily lives in this complicated world?

When we can get away with it, we don’t think. Instead, we rely on memory. Most people think they have a terrible memory, and it’s true your memory is not as reliable as your visual or movement systems. However, your memory system is much more reliable than your thinking system, and provides answers quickly and with little effort. In fact, most of the problems we face are ones we have solved before, so we just do what we have done in the past. Of the four systems, thinking is the less reliable and less accurate, involves the most effort, and is the slowest.

How does a teacher teach a class that finds thinking hard work and seldom engages in it? As is often the case, when confronted with a challenge, it is best to utilize your greatest asset. Remembering the words of Mae West, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

The Gannett Company launched a new newspaper, the USA Today, on September 15, 1982. The format of the newspaper was based on the premise of making use of pictures more than words to deliver the news to its readers. Many experts expected the newspaper to fail miserably and questioned the newspaper’s feasibility, wondering whether Americans would buy a newspaper based on pictures delivering many of the stories, with one lead written story, and many stories condensed to a few sentences with supporting pictures.

Within four years, the USA Today had the second highest readership of any newspaper in the country and within ten years, it was number one. Today it vies with the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for the position of having the widest circulation of any newspaper in the US.

Why did the USA Today succeed? The “less text, more pictures” format worked based on the fact that pictures are a more efficient delivery mechanism of information, and busy Americans preferred a more-efficient medium to transfer information that takes less effort to comprehend.

As teachers prepare presentations and lectures for instruction, they should remember the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Words are only postage stamps delivering the objects for you to unwrap.”

Scientist have known for many years that pictures and text follow different rules when it comes to memory and that the more visual the input becomes, the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled. Pictorial superiority effect is the term for this phenomenon.

In one study, researchers showed people more than 2,500 pictures for 10 seconds. Several days later they tested the people for recall of the pictures and found they had a 90% accuracy rate. One year later, the recall accuracy rate was 63%.

In Brain Rules, John Medina urges teachers to use pictures as much as possible when instructing students. He cites studies that show recall of information doubles when a picture is added as compared to when information is presented with just text. After three days, the average person will remember 10% of the oral information presented, 35% if the material was presented only visually, and 65% if the information was presented both orally and visually.

Medina cites data showing that reading creates a bottleneck in the brain. Text chokes the brain, not because the text is not enough like pictures but because text is too much like pictures. The brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures. To our cortex, there is no such thing as words, it is all pictures. Instead of words, we see complex little pictures with hundreds of features embedded in letters. The brain rigorously analyzes each feature of a word and independently verifies it before moving to the next feature in the word.

Furthermore, to use pictures effectively for instruction, it is not as simple as placing a picture in the middle of text. To maximize the effect of pictures, it is important to remember the four main essentials that capture the brain’s attention and to which it pays attention to: color, orientation, size, and most importantly, motion, to which the brain gives special attention. In fact, the brain is specialized to detect movement. According to Medina, the brain “has sophisticated trip-wires to detect movement and specialized brain regions to distinguish when our eyes are moving versus when our world is moving.”

To further reinforce the idea of pictorial superiority, it is best to recall the old adage that seeing is believing, and to apply it to current and past events that were made more meaningful to the world when viewed on video.

In spite of complaint filed by the Atlantic City Police Department that said Ray Rice rendered his fiancée unconscious by knocking her out, the NFL suspended him in July 2014 for two games. But once the video of the actual punch surfaced, he was banned indefinitely.

Time and again, we are informed of outrages - Rice’s domestic violence, beheading and rape by fanatics, Donald Sterling’s racism, abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib-but when video emerges the outrage increases dramatically and forceful action follows. Going back farther in our history further serve to reinforce this point: images and videos that turned the course of American’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and the Rodney King police beating tape.

Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, opines that, “Words are abstractions, and pictures are a presentation of the thing itself. On some level, we are probably wired to be much more responsive to something we see.”

In summary, it is advantageous that to remember that we learn and remember best through pictures not through written and spoken words, and that vision is the optimal tool for learning anything. By using our most dominant sense-vision- we can make learning more engaging and make thinking easier.


“If we can control the attention of the child, we solve the problems of education.” Maria Montessori

This month Ed Tip will examine how to improve students' learning by activating their attention.