The Roots of Student Resistance

As readers of this blog know, I am fascinated by the roots of student resistance.  In general, I have argued that student resistance to the industrialized model of higher education derives from political and economic foundations of the university.  In short, students don’t want to be good citizens or cogs in the capitalist, industrial machine and it’s our job as faculty to force students into taking up their places in the community. Pretty bleak, isn’t it?  (For some archival posts see here, here, here, and here.

I was pretty happy, then, to read over Christmas break Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. (Jossey-Bass 2009).  My brother who works in the North Carolina public school system got a copy of the book for Christmas and it seemed like something that I should read, so I Kindled it.

Willingham’s basic argument is that students don’t like school because the brain is designed to avoid thinking. He proposed a simple model for thought with two main parts: a working memory where awareness and thinking take place and a long-term memory where factual and procedural knowledge reside. To simplify it further, our working memory is where we think and our long-term memory is where we store the information and operations upon which thinking depends.  When human action is optimized, it draws almost entirely on stored procedures and facts in long-term memory.  This is why such basic acts as driving or playing a sport or even just walking require relatively little thought.  These activities depend very little on working memory.  School work, in contrast, tends to draw heavily on working memory and the more that we use our working memory, the more frustrating tasks become. The goal then of a good classroom exercise is the balance the use of the working memory with the use of the long-term memory and thereby balance the frustrating and sub-optimal thinking part of the brain with the optimized, memory functions that allow most of us to navigate successfully through everyday life.

Willingham argues that many of the typical assignments in schools push the working memory too hard and this leads to unsuccessful results in problem solving activities and frustration. Working memory work is hard work! This is not to say that working memory work can’t be rewarding. In fact, Willingham suggests that the move from working memory to long-term memory is crucial to make learning effective.  Moreover, successfully solving problems with working memory does generate a feeling of pleasure.  So there are incentives for students and teachers alike to manage effectively the use of working memory.

At the same time, Willingham suggests that the capacity of our working memory to manipulate new ideas, facts, procedures, and objects and combine them for thought is rather fixed. Our long-term memory may well be more flexible.  Thus the goal of teaching is to push as much as possible into long-term memory in order to free up space in working memory for the manipulation of new ideas.  Willingham’s use of spatial metaphors (e.g. working memory has a maximum amount of “space”) makes these arguments quite clear.

Having established his basic model for cognition, Willingham spends a good bit of time talking about how to move knowledge from working memory to long term memory without boring students. When students lose interest in material, the teaching process stops.  At the same time, creating a rich and powerful long-term memory requires constant and, to some extent, repetitive practice.  Students who have better background information on a topic (which Willingham places in long-term memory), for example, have improved reading comprehension skills.  Expertise and the ability to improvise and problem solve come from the ability to lean on long-term memory factual information and models to test hypothesis and to free up working memory for the manipulation of new ideas, facts, and experiences.

Willingham’s model for learning paralleled my experiences working with students in Latin over the past few years in Latin Friday Morning. Many of the students who join me for coffee and Latin on Fridays have less the thorough knowledge of the word endings, forms, and paradigms central for understanding the Latin language.  As a result, they spend most of our time struggling to identify parts of speech (at worst) or cases, tenses, and potential functions of words (at best). They do not seem to be able both to identify the words and to process the relationships between the words and other words in the sentence.  And understanding the relationship between words in a sentence is essential to reading.  The reason for this, according to Willingham’s model of cognition, is that students overload their working memory with the almost innumerable variables present in a single sentence because they have not pushed any of the basic factual knowledge (and here we really mean basic word paradigms) into their long-term memory.  The goal of improving their ability to read Latin, then, is to expand the content of their long-term memory freeing up working memory space for the difficult process of reading a foreign language.

To return, then, to the idea of student resistance, Willingham’s model of cognition places student dislike for school at the intersection of biology and pedagogy. The relentless pressure exerted on the working memory by the sometime ham-fisted tendency to expose students to problem solving exercises which go far beyond the resources available to them in their long-term memory.  At the same time, the brain’s desire to work at the lowest level possible offers biological push back against both teaching and learning.  Willingham notes that emotionally positive experiences with content and processes contribute to the development of the long-term memory and these positive experiences tend to derive from measure use of working memory and incremental improvements in long-term memory resources.

One Comment

  1. This is exactly my experience with Latin and Russian. With other languages, either the complexity is not there, or the long term memory of parts of speech and endings is strong. I can not just “feel” Latin and Russian the way I can other languages. Really, that intuitive sense of the language probably has less to do with intuition than with related material in my long term memory that untangles a language for me.


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