Make it unfamiliar

Learning requires mental effort. Yet, we are constantly told ways to make learning easier.  Perhaps we should be trying to make learning harder.

We know from psychology that when situations seem to fit easily into our past experiences that subconscious processes take over. However, because subconscious processes are based on generalizations, such subconscious processes are prone to error.  That is, when walking up to a door that has a handle, our immediate reaction is to pull (even if the door says “push”).

If our subconscious mental processes are prone to error, we should be trying to steer learners out of subconscious processes and into more conscious processes (usually associated with working and short-term memory). Although these conscious processes are slower, they are the processes needed for learning new material.

Perhaps our routines should not be so routine. One in particular comes to mind. Maybe we shouldn’t display our objectives on the board.  Instead, maybe the kids should tell us what the objective was at the end of the lesson. This might prevent the objective being mindlessly (subconsciously) written down never to be considered again.

What other routines should we be questioning? In what other ways should we be purposefully making things more difficult so that kids might actually learn?

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2 Responses to Make it unfamiliar

  1. Brian Bennett says:

    I like the idea of not showing the objectives on the board. I’m in a grad program right now and one of our weekly questions is, “What course objectives do you feel the reading addressed this week?” I’ve really appreciated that questions because it’s forced me to be more critical in the reading and more open-minded in my perception of the content.

    One thing I’ve really tried to do well this year is introduce a cognitive struggle before formally teaching a single idea. I’d like to see what students can come up with because they can often get the generalities and I fill in the specifics in context. Setting up the mental desire for more information goes a long way.

    I’m struggling, though, with maintaining a good balance. I’m certainly not having the look at new ideas every day, but I’m trying to find the sweet spot between mental exercises and good support for learning. Any tips on how to find that mixture?


    • jerridkruse says:

      A friend of mine likes to see teaching (with the cognitive struggle) as the students and teachers pushing on each other. Sometimes the teacher pushes a little harder, but when the students start to push back too hard (become overly frustrated), the teacher eases up a bit only to return to pushing harder at a later time. Overall, the teacher pushes the students more than the students push the teacher.

      I think you’re asking about how to provide the “eases up”. I think one often overlooked way is to simply give the students a new piece of information. There is a time to tell students things. However, once they have that new information, follow it up with: “How does this new information change our thinking?” (or something like that).


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