The Need to “DO” and to “THINK”

“Moving from a culture of doing to a culture of thinking.”  We use this phrase a great deal in our district but do we really know what it means?  Or why this shift is of the utmost importance not only for our students, but for our educators?  I continue to expand my understanding of this phrase each time I read educational material. This week, I returned to a book written by a cognitive scientist, Daniel T. Willingham, called Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009). In this resource, questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom are answered.  I found that much of what Willingham posits helped me to understand in a deeper way, why this shift is necessary for true learning to occur.

Much time has been spent wondering and exploring the reasons why our evidence is showing that many of our learners are not experiencing “learning as a permanent change in thinking and behaviour” (Katz and Dack, 2011).  Our supposition is that perhaps in some cases, they have learned to simply comply with our instructions, to “play the school game” as many of us describe it…to get by doing what the educator asks of us, whether that requires memorization, or telling the educator what you think they want to hear.  This resonates with me, as I believe, to a certain extent, that this is how I experienced school.  I was truly motivated by grades, and learned how to achieve those grades not by deeply focusing on my learning, but on focusing on ways to beat the system.  When I think about our student achievement data, and the gaps that exist – especially in math – as students move through the grades, this supposition is plausible. Many students are learning the procedures and algorithms and those are helping them to get by, until they reach a stage when they are required to apply those procedures and algorithms in a different context. It is then that they begin to struggle as the solid foundation of “permanent learning” that comes from deep understanding has flaws.

In reading Willingham (2009), there is much research to support that need to understand how learning actually takes place.   Critical to this understanding however, is the notion that, “people are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” (pg. 3)  The four factors that successful thinking relies on are “information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long term memory, and the amount of space in working memory”. Willingham argues that people are naturally motivated by problem-solving – by engaging in “cognitive work that poses moderate challenge” (Pg. 19) that they see as worthy and that is solvable – he calls this “successful thinking” (pg. 18).

To actually do this however, people need to have the necessary background knowledge, which comes from having factual knowledge in our long term memories (the reason why we need to read a great deal and engage in experiences vicariously).  We need this factual information to be able to think critically, which supports what Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers, 2015) tells us about the notion that without ideas/facts, we are unable to make connections or to extend that thinking to another context.  “You need something to think about” (Willingham, pg. 27).  “The very processes that teacher care about most –critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment)” (Willingham, pg. 28).  I connected this to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and the need to have knowledge through remembering (lowest level) in order to move to creating (highest level).


Willingham cautions us however, that “our goal is not to simply have students know a lot of stuff—it’s to have them know stuff in service of being able to think effectively” (2009, pg. 48). “Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning…such drilling would do far more harm by making students miserable and by encouraging the belief that school is a place of boredom and drudgery, not excitement and discovery” (pg. 50). This brings me back to last week, when we discussed that we remember what we actually think about. When we simply “do”, items may enter our working memory, however when we actually “think” they have a chance of entering our long term member –and thus can be called up (permanent change to thinking and behaviour”) at a later date.  I understand that there must be a certain amount of “doing” in order to actually have something to “think” about; we must have information enter our working memory and then we need to use (and thus think about) that information in order to have it enter our long term memory.  However, in saying this, it is the balance of  “doing” and “thinking” that must shift.  This is what we mean by “moving from doing to thinking”- it is about where we are placing our focus.

I now have more questions.

  • Are we carefully considering the essential concepts/big ideas  (versus a series of seemingly unrelated concepts) that our students need to have, and then determining how to build these concepts throughout the school year/term/semester so that students are given multiple opportunities to “think” about these concepts so that they enter their long term memory?
  • What does it means to “think”? It brings me back to Bloom’s.  How are we using the Assessment for and as Learning strategies as the tool to have the students “think” about these concepts?  When students push back against co-construction, are we helping them to understand that true learning isn’t compliance? That true learning is growing your brain through “thinking” (growth mindset) which comes from practicing – from applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating information that they have understood and remembered?

Until next week…what would be the impact of revising Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy in light of where we are today in our understanding of Assessment for and as Learning?

3 responses

  1. Learning as a permanent change……hmmm……we often have conversations about our students and what is happening in our classrooms – especially if we feel that a particular concept is somewhat problematic for our students. We also talk about how we learn and what we need to be successful as adults. Just today someone said to me “I hope the training is hands on because that is the kind of learner I am”. Part of the learning piece is for our learners to understand how they learn so that they are better able to take that knowledge and apply that knowledge in other context. This just reinforces for me the power of student voice within a classroom. I re-visited the 5 Minute Teacher this week and how the author frames a period of learning. As I was reading I was thinking about what this would look like for a staff learning sessions. The author tells us that it is harder to plan for a student centered classroom than it is for a traditional format. We have spent much time talking about modelling for our students- scaffolding, the process of inquiry, or a think aloud, etc.What does this look like for us as adult learners. It brings us back to how essential the knowledge piece is for us to see a shift in teacher practice and student practice.You need to have something to think about. And how do you get that knowledge? PLCs, Twitter , blogs, colleagues. So tomorrow at our staff learning we are entering into the “doing” based on student work. We need to continue to build knowledge in order to think so that we can expand our mindset.
    As for Blooms taxonomy- I think that we could dig deeper into what learning looks like in a scaffolded process – that permanent change. The process of thinking is quite complex. This last week one of our classes was video chatting with a kindergarten class. They were brainstorming together and based on a read aloud- “ok” were writing poems. I reminded the grade 11s that they needed to be on their “A” game and as an uninhibited thinker (jk/sk students) they didn’t want to be out done by their expertise😀They agreed they are pretty sharp! Perhaps that our inhibitions are one of the reasons that our “think” falls short?


    1. Thanks so much Heidi. So very much to “thing” about!!!


  2. Connection I am making to book (Drive)
    Societies have operating systems. Operating system of humans changing- (60’s) evolved from basic survival to algorithmic (follow the procedure) evolving now to creativity and self-realization.(heuristic)
    Humans (learners) are affected by rewards and motivators:
    Extrinsic rewards as show in classroom studies can turn an interesting task into drudge and can turn play into work. By diminishing intrinsic motivation they can send performance, creativity and responsible behaviour sliding. ( as shown in experiment asking students to draw for enjoyment, random rewards or consistent rewards)
    Using if…. Then rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy. This is detrimental to the 3rd drive (intrinsic).
    Latest research indicates: motivators like enjoyment of the work itself, genuine achievement and personal growth boosted satisfaction and performance. This has become more evident in our society by the development of companies, humans who prefer (open) sources which contribute to society by offering free products or services. More research is indicating creative motivation is the strongest and most pervasive motivator. Going one step further , that controlling extrinsic motivators are detrimental and devastating to heuristic drives.
    There is much to think about in the educational setting for our learners. Stay tuned as I continue through the book.


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