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05.09.20On Thinking and Learning

On The Library Shelf 06 HD by urzine | VideoHive
I read them, I cherish them and I remember almost nothing about them…

Thinking is not learning. Thinking is part of the learning process but not all of it. Just striving for lots of thinking or even deep thinking in classrooms won’t necessarily result in learning. Maybe that’s obvious to you. It wasn’t to me for a long time and I suspect in that regard I’m not unique among educators.

I’ve spent a few hours over the last week watching video of teaching with a group of colleagues I respect and admire. The goal is to figure out the moves their teachers can use to boost rigor and ratio. In video of their classrooms I see an immense amount of thinking: thought-provoking questions from teachers and hard-working students striving to answer. They run very good schools, my friends do. But I worry that the thinking their students do is not turning into learning or mastery.

There are, I think, two possible reasons why. The first I’ve written about before: not enough background knowledge. You can’t think deeply about something you don’t know a lot about. Or better put, you CAN think deeply about it but you won’t learn much. “Why is the sky blue?” Without background knowledge, you could think deeply about this all day long and come up with a dozen theories comprised of magical thinking, guessing, myth-making and plausible sounding logic. Societies did this for eons. They thought about the color of the sky. Without knowledge there was nothing learned.

The other reason why thinking does not amount to learning is that there’s no prioritization, review and memory building afterwards. This is a lesson I have had to learn over and over in my own life. I love and value reading and my shelves are stocked with books that have awakened in me the deepest thoughts and reflections. They caused hours of thinking which, whether it was profound to anyone else or not, certainly pushed the limits of what I was capable of. Now I look at those books and remember, mostly, how much I loved them. That’s about it. I read deeply but remember almost nothing. This sadly is true for many of the cherished classes took as a student as well. I loved them. The thinking was profound. I remember the feeling of it. But what else do I remember? Only the warm glow and a hazy detail or two. I thought but I did not learn much.

One change I made recently is to keep a commonplace journal. In it I write down short passages and quotations from books I read. This keeps the ideas alive; prioritizes them and makes them available for easy review. Just choosing what’s important and writing it out long-hand helps but every few weeks I flip through the book and review over a cup of coffee the five or ten most memorable ideas from the books I’ve read over the past year or so. I find I remember even parts I didn’t write down. Suddenly my books are less like museum pieces to remind me of thoughts I loved but can no longer access. I have learned something from them.

Which raises a question for classrooms: to turn thinking into learning: 1) engage in knowledge-building first to make the thinking powerful. 2) Do memory work afterwards–prioritizing, writing, retrieving. This is no after-thought, no coda. It is as crucial as the thinking. As the cognitive psychologists Kirschner, Sweller and Clark put it: “The aim of instruction is to change long-term memory. If nothing has been changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.”

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