Using learning science to cut fat and fluff
Every morning, when future teacher Ben Mueller turns on the light in his bedroom, his fingers brush against a taped-on index card that reads, “Memory is the residue of thought.”
The phrase stuck with him after a seminar at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) on how to foster effortful thinking in students — the kind of deep processing that ensures a concept is remembered. (And readers of Dan Willingham know that Deans for Impact has borrowed this phrase from his book Why Don’t Students Like School?, recently published in its second edition.)
“If memory is the residue of thought, then for students to understand the to-be-remembered content, they are going to have to think super hard. The more they process, the longer they remember,” he said. To foster this learning, Ben uses a two-part strategy that he learned at UMSL: (1) ask thought-provoking questions that elicit higher-order thinking and (2) share examples and non-examples with students.
“A lot of it is centered around knowing how to ask good questions — and then not allowing for any kind of rigour collapse,” he explained. “Many people, when they ask questions, will immediately modify or qualify the question if there’s silence. But that’s where the learning happens.”
He also designs lessons to include examples and non-examples that help students to understand the boundaries of a concept — what it is and isn’t. Though it may seem straightforward, this teaching strategy is actually a powerful tool to help students access deeper learning.
“It’s really shifted the foundation of my lessons. I almost always start with detailed examples and non-examples now in lessons so that students can frame what I’m talking about,” he said.
During his high-school English practicums, he has used this approach to orient students towards the underlying thematic structure of texts and what it looks like to compare themes across texts, helping them avoid distracting surface-level features of the plot or characters.
For instance, if he’s asking students to compare Edgar Allen Poe’s short story William Wilson to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he will push his students to make meaningful comparisons between texts. An example of a meaningful comparison? Both texts are about doppelgangers and duality. A non-example? Both stories are set in England.
“When you ask students to compare two stories, there’s a lot available for them to compare. I’m asking them to look for a quality observation – something worthwhile and insightful. Using varied examples allows me to draw an outline, to sketch a border around what they’re looking for,” he said. “When I separate non-answers, it shows them what I’m not looking for, and helps them avoid landmines. Seeing non-examples helps them understand that comparisons such as two stories being set in England exist outside of the boundary of what I’m looking for. It cuts away the fluff and fat of the lesson.”
This defining of boundaries is important to student learning. Mueller used to work as a swim coach, and he sees similarities between the classroom and learning a new stroke. To learn the technique of the butterfly stroke, you don’t just hop in the water and start racing. First, you should watch examples of good practice: a coach demonstrating the stroke, and films of Olympic athletes winning races. Then, review videos of swimmers shot from different angles (top and bottom, front and back.) Following that, you might review a non-example of someone swimming the butterfly using incorrect technique. Only after all this should you jump into the water to try it out for yourself.
“To take a term like ‘the butterfly stroke’ and turn it into an action is analogous to what I’m trying to do in the classroom,” Mueller said. “Providing students with examples and non-examples allows them to clear some of that mental fog of not knowing what a word or concept is.”