Open Thinkering


Tag: book

10 things I learned from ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’

Daniel Willingham is the guy who put learning styles firmly in their place. I greatly respected him for his outspoken, succinct and well put-together YouTube video on the subject and so it was with interest that I spotted Why Don’t Students Like School: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Thinking is slow

[T]hinking is slow. Your visual system instantly takes in a complex scene… Your thinking system does not instantly calculate the answer to a problem the way your visual system immiediately takes in a visual scene… [I]f we can get away with it, we don’t think. Instead we rely on memory. Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past. (p.5)

2. Curiosity is fragile (p.7-10)

Solving problems brings pleasure… There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking… It’s notable too that the pleasure is in the solving of the problem. Working on a problem with no sense that you’re making progress is not pleasurable. In fact, it’s frustrating… Mental work appeals to us because it offers the opportunity for that pleasant feeling when it succeeds.

[W]hen does curiosity have staying power? The answer may lie in the difficulty of the problem. If we get a little burst of pleasure from solving a problem, then there’s no point in working on a problem that is too easy – there’ll be no pleasure when it’s solved because it didn’t feel like much of a problem in the first place. Then too, when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you’re unlikely to solve it, and are therefore unlikely to get the satisfaction that comes with the solution.

[C]uriosity prompts people to explore new ideas and problems, but when we do, we quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, we stop working on the problem if we can. (p.8-10)

3. Cognitive limits should be respected

When trying to develop effective mental challenges for your students, bear in mind [their] cognitive limitations… For example, suppose you began a history lesson with a question: “You’ve all heard of the Boston Tea Party; why do you suppose the colonists dressed as Indians and dumped tea into the Boston harbor?” Do your students have the necessary background knowledge in memory to consider this question? If students lack the background knowledge to engage with a problem, save it for another time when they have that knowledge. (p.15)

4. Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills

Not only does background knowledge make you a better reader, but it also is necessary to be a good thinker. The processes we most hope to engender in our students – thinking critically and logically – are not possible without background knowledge.

[P]eople draw on memory to solve problems more often than you might expect. For example, it appears that much of the difference among the world’s best chess players is not their ability to reason about the game or to plan the best move; rather, it is their memory for game positions.

Much of what experts tell us they do in the course of thinking about their field requires background knowledge, even if it’s not described that way… Unexpected outcomes indicate that their knowledge is incomplete and that this experiment contains hidden seeds of new knowledge. But for results to be unexpected, you must have an expectation! (p.28-32)

5. Memory is the residue of thought

Whatever you think about, that’s what you remember. Memory is the residue of thought. Once stated, this conclusion seems impossibly obvious… Your brain lays its bets this way: If you don’t think about something very much, then you probably won’t want to think about it again, so it need not be store. If you do think about something, then it’s likely that you’ll want to think about it in the same way in the future.

The obvious implication for teachers is that they must design lessons that will ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material.

Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work… [A]ny material has different aspects of meaning. If the instructor used a math problem with cell phone minutes, isn’t there some chance that my daughter would think about cell phones rather than about the problem? And that thoughts about cell phones would lead to thoughts about the text message she received earlier, which would remind her to change her picture on her Facebook profile, which would make her think about the zit she has on her nose…? (p.47-50)

Willingham goes on to explain that we tend to focus on the ‘personality’ aspects of what makes a good teacher, which is only half the story. The other half is meaning. One of the best ways to convey meaning is to use story structures.

6. Understanding is remembering in disguise

[Students] understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they do know).

[U]nderstanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas into working memory and then rearranging them – making comparison we hadn’t made before, or thinking about a feature we had previously ignored.

Now you can see why I claim that understanding is remembering in disguise. No one can pour new ideas into a student’s head directly. Every new idea must build on ideas that the student already knows. (p.68-71)

7. Practising is better than drilling

Doing a lot of studying right before a test is commonly known as cramming… If you pack lots of studying into a short period, you’ll do okay on an immediate test, but you will forget the material quickly. If, on the other hand, you study in several sessions with delays between them, you may not do quite as well on the immediate test but, unlike the crammer, you’ll remember the material longer after the test.

[Y]ou can get away with less practice if you space it out than if you bunch it together. Spacing practice has another benefit. Practice… means continuing to work at something that you’ve already mastered. By definition, that sounds kind of boring, even though it brings cognitive benefits. It will be somewhat easier for a teacher to make such tasks interesting if they are spaced out in time. (p.90-91)

8. Experts have abstract knowledge of problem types

Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.

We can generalize by saying that experts think abstractly… Experts don’t have trouble understanding abstract idas, because they see the deep structure of problems.

[E]xperts save room in working memory through acquiring extensive, functional background knowledge, and by making mental procedures automatic. What do they do with that extra space in working memory? Well, one thing they do is talk to themselves.

What’s interesting about this self-talk is that the expert can draw implications from it… [E]xperts do not just narrate what they are doing. They also generate hypotheses, and so test their own understanding and think through the implications of possible solutions in progress. (p.101-104)

9. Learning styles theory is subject to ‘confirmation bias’

[T]he visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory seems right [because of] a psychological phenomenon called the confirmation bias. Once we believe something, we unconsciously interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we already believe… The great novelist Tolstoy put it this way: “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life.” (p.121)

10. Beliefs about intelligence are important

In a classic study on the effect of praise, the experimenters asked fifth graders to work on some problems in which they were to find patterns. The first set of problems was fairly easy to that the students would solve most of them. The students were then praised for their success. All were told, “Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got [number of problems] right. That’s a really high score.” Some were then told, “You must be smart at these problems.” In other words, the were praised for their ability. Others were told, “You must have worked hard at these problems,” thus receiving praise for their effort. Each student was then interviewed by a different experimenter to learn what the students thought about intelligence. The results showed that those who had been praised for their ability (“you’re smart”) were more likely to describe a fixed view of intelligence than those who were praised for their effort (“you worked hard”), who were more likely to describe a malleable view of intelligence. Similar effects have been shown in many studies, including studies of children as young as four years old.


The two main things I took away were:

  • Practice. Practice. Practice. Get and give feedback. Observe others. Ask questions. Be curious.
  • Be careful with the language you use with students – both in terms of representing concepts and in terms of praise.

I’d recommend Willingham’s book wholeheartedly. The nine principles he puts in a table towards the end of the book are worth the price of the book alone. They should be jazzed-up and given to all teachers, everywhere!

Why Don’t Students Like School: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom

Leadership by Design.

It is perhaps a statement of the obvious, but worth emphasizing, that the forms or structures of the immediate world we inhabit are overwhelmingly the outcome of human design. They are not inevitable or immutable and are open to examination and discussion. (p.5)

I’m reading John Heskett’s excellent Design: A Very Short Introduction at the moment. As regular readers will know, I’m very interested in infographics and visualizations; with a background in Philosophy and History I’m also interested in design at a more fundamental and basic level.

As with all well-explained and written books, the author ruminates on things that range across various disciplines. From the opening quotation, Heskett continues:

Whether executed well or badly (on whatever basis this is judged,) designs are not determined by technological processes, social structures, or economic systems, or any other objective source. They result from the decisions and choices of human beings. (p.5)

There’s actually some leadership lessons in there, with more throughout the book. For example, Heskett explains how the French initially became renowned for design:

In the early seventeenth century, the French monarchy used privileged status and luxurious facilities to attract the finest craftsmen to Paris in order to establish international dominance in the production and trade of luxury goods. Laws were introduced to promote exports and restrict imports. (p.16, my emphasis)

Heskett later explains how it’s difficult to be innovative and creative in large organizations because of the levels of bureaucracy involved:

Tacit, subjective approaches may be appropriate for small-scale products… In contrast with large-scale products involving complex questions of technology and the organization of interactions on many levels, personal intuition is unlikely to be capable of handling all necessary aspects. In such projects, rational, structured methodologies can ensure the full dimensions of projects are understood as a platform for creative solutions on the level of detailed execution.

Heskett gives the example of the well-known (and expensive) Aeron chair by Herman Miller. This not only involves creative flair, but technical and ergonomic research and synthesis beyond the level of the individual.

I’ve not finished Design: A Very Short Introduction yet, but (as with the others in the series) at £5 it’s an absolute steal. To summarize, the 3 leadership lessons I’ve learned from it already:

  1. Almost everything is the product of deliberate human interaction, thought and planning.
  2. Rewarding and/or legislating for behaviours and outputs you want is a fast track to success.
  3. Bureaucracy is a necessary evil in large organizations – but you can use it to your advantage through agile processes and effective project management.

I’ll post again when I’ve finished if there’s anything else that strikes me. Recommended! 😀

#newleaders is #movemeon for… guess who?

I know I usually post about design and infographics on Saturdays, but this is a time-delimited thing that I need to get people involved with ASAP!

Remember #movemeon, the crowdsourced book with tips for teachers that was such a success last year? Well, there’s a new one for leaders, being headed-up by @tombarrett and @stuartridout. The aim is similar – to create a book that collects wisdom for leaders new to their position.

You can contribute simply by including the hashtag #newleaders in a tweet. They are collated at:

A partial review of ‘The Hyperlinked Society’

Every academic area of research and study has its leaders in the field. In the case of digital literacy and, more particularly, new literacies, it’s Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel. They have a joint blog at and a couple of months ago wrote a post requesting volunteers to review books they’d been sent for the academic journal e-Learning and Digital Media, of which Michele is the editor.

I, of course, jumped at the chance and offered to review two of the books. One had already been claimed, so Michele very kindly sent through The Hyperlinked Society: Questioning Connections in the Digital Age. I thought it would fit hand-in-glove with my Ed.D. thesis. I’ve promised to get the review to her by the end of this month, so this post is a way to keep me on track towards that target! 🙂

The Hyperlinked Society (hereafter THS) has three sections:

  1. Hyperlinks and the Organization of Attention
  2. Hyperlinks and the Business of Media
  3. Hyperlinks, the Individual and the Social

The book is a follow-up project to a conference in 2006 that featured around 200 people from countries around the world. They ‘came together to address the social implications of instant digital linking’ (Turow, p.5):

We did not intend to solve any particular problem at the meeting. Instead, the goal was to shed light on a remarkable social phenomenon that people in business and the academy usually take for granted… The aim [of the book] was not to drill deeply into particular research projects. It was, rather, to write expansively, provocatively – even controversially – about the extent to which and ways in which hyperlinks are changing our worlds and why. In short, we hope that this book will function as a platform from which others… will launch their own research projects and policy analyses. (p.5-6)

Given this stated aim it is easier to forgive the eclectic nature of the collected essays and the curious organization of the book as a whole. The final section, easily the strongest, which touches on the philosophical background and implications of the hyperlink, would seem naturally to come first. The middle section is the least academic of the three, with few references and bald assertions mainly about the future of advertising. The first section, whilst very interesting, is unfortunately almost entirely descriptive.

And therein lies one of two problems for a book about hyperlinks that is ostensibly a conversation-starter. First, the criticism can be levelled that why, if the book is about hyperlinks, does it need to be in book form at all? The second is the scatter-gun approach in terms of the target audience for the book. Whilst it sounds grand to state that ‘professors, graduate students, lawmakers [and] corporate executives’ (p.6) will find it useful, widening the book’s scope could lead to accusations that it lacks depth.

One of, if not the best, essay in THS is David Weinberger’s The Morality of Links. This is due to Weinberger’s willingness to not only going beyond description but to stick his neck out in defending his belief that ‘links are good’ and that ‘Morality and the Web have the same basic architecture’. Links are good because of two main reasons, he believes:

  • The Web is a real potential that ‘we’re actively creating and expanding’, and
  • Every time we create a link we ‘take a step away from the selfish solipsism that characterizes our age’ (p.189-190)

It is in this meta-level analysis of the importance of hyperlinks that the book has value. Given that most of the target audience would be aware of the history of the internet and would have probably only a passing interest in advertising, the third and final section of the book adds most to human knowledge in this area.

Overall, the book is valuable in providing material for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Whilst it would be difficult to envision an occasion in which it could be used in its entirity, it is useful as a resource for a course organizer to dip into. The first and third sections are the most valuable: the first because it describes well the current situation and how we got here; the third due to its analysis and where we’re headed.

A brief history of infographics.

I recently picked up the classic Designing Infographics: Theory, creative techniques & practical solutions by Eric K. Meyer for an absolute song. Published in 1997, the ‘practical solutions’ part is dated, but the theory and techniques section is as relevant as every. What really interested me was the opening section on the history of infographics, some of which I’d like to share with you.

If heiroglyphics count as infographics, then of course they are around 5,000 years old. Sumerian ‘letters’ were combined with pictures to explain concepts, provide explanations and tell stories. A little more recently in the western world, graphics have been used to represent quantitative data. One of the first examples of this is Nicole d’Oresme (1352-82), Bishop of Lisieux, who combined figures into groups and graphed them. Leonardo da Vinci was fond of mixing graphics and text, especially in his Treatise on Painting.

Modern infographics can be traced to William Playfair’s ‘information graphics’ for The Commercial & Political Atlas, published in 1786 and containing 44 graphics (mostly line, ‘fever’ or bar charts). Subsequently, Otto Neurath (1882-1945), a sociologist, developed the ‘Vienna method’. This stressed the importance of simple images to explain data. Neurath documented everything in graphic form that he researched statistically,  founding the ‘Isotype’ movement (International System of Typographic Picture Education) – an attempt at a world language without words. This, coupled with Modernism, had ‘a profound impact on graphics and design world-wide’. The London Underground map is a product of this movement:

The USA took longer to start using infographics, with the early adopters being Fortune magazine, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times (the latter now being a leader in the field). Researchers Turnbull and Baird in 1962 realised the importance of infographics – in a world before the internet, 24-hour news and cable television:

Tests have proven that material of the same content has been received, read and acted upon in one form, but discarded in another. These examples, coupled with the knowledge that every reader is offered much more than he can ever assimilate, assert that graphic techniques are too important to be ignored.

By 1981 other newspapers were using infographics but it was the launch of USA Today in 1982 and its commitment to using graphics every day that started the real trend. Some of these, however (the types of bread – white, wheat or rye – preferred by members of Congress) were merely filler. In Germany, Der Spiegel had been experimenting with more artistic infographics since the mid-1950s.

The dawn of computers had a massive effect on infographics. ‘Desktop publishing’ became more than just a casual phrase when desktop computers, partnered with the first laser printers, led to reductions in newspaper department workloads by 15-20 hours per week. This freed up time to experiment with infographics. With programs available for the Apple Mac such as MacDraw, newspapers no longer required skilled artists laboriously hand-drawing each infographic.

As the processing power of computers grew, so did their ability to represent complex data in a visually-appealing way. In 1990, research carried out by the Gallup Organization showed that graphic elements possessed greater power than originally thought. They used computerized headgear to record what readers saw on a page, noticing that visual elements received a great deal of attention. Follow-up studies confirmed this and that readers were left with more memorable impressions than when presented with words only.

The dawn of the internet has led to an explosion in interest and use of infographics. Many and diverse software packages and web applications are available to represent your data visually. If you’re interested, try the following three:

My favourite proverbs from around the world.

Recently, I joined Newcastle City Library. Back in the day you had to live in Newcastle or the surrounding area (or be a student there) but times have changed. It’s everything a public library should be: light, clean, welcoming and easy-to-use.

I only had a short time to browse, but a book entitled As They Say In Zanzibar: Proverbial Wisdom From Around The World caught my eye. I love stuff like this; a country’s sayings reveal a lot about it’s culture and people.

Here’s some of my favourite from the (literally) thousands in the book:

Don’t put each foot on a different boat. (China)

Heroism consists in hanging on one minute longer. (Norway)

When it rains, fill the jar. (Turkey)

Hunger doesn’t say, ‘Stale bread,’ and cold doesn’t say ‘Old coat.’ (Georgia)

What is said over the dead lion’s body could not be said to him alive. (Republic of Congo)

No matter how long a log floats on the river it will never be a crocodile. (Mali)

Grief and joy are a revolving wheel. (India)

People who do what they say are not cowards. (Nigeria)

When you show the moon to a child, it sees only your finger. (Zambia)

A basket-maker who makes one basket makes a hundred. (Brazil)

Another reason why I like proverbs is because they’re a great example of what Steve Higgins, my Ed.D. thesis supervisor, would call productive ambiguity. They can be applied to many situations beyond the obvious!

I’d love to have the time to match up all of the wonderful proverbs to relevant Flickr pictures. I’ll have to make do with the rather handy Phrasr to semi-automate stuff instead… :-p

What are YOUR favourite proverbs?

If I wrote a book, would you buy it?

I’ve been using the excellent What Would Seth Godin Do? plugin for WordPress (which powers this blog) for a while now. It’s a great way to get a message across to readers, differentiated for new and return visitors. New visitors to this blog get a message giving them information on how to subscribe and/or get in contact with me.

Return visitors, on the other hand, get a different message. Recently, I’ve been asking for feedback on the question posed in the title of this post, namely: If I wrote a book, would you buy it? The answers are in the above graph. Interestingly, no-one responded that the price was an issue, nor did anyone state that they would buy anything that I wrote.

Good. That’s as it should be. 🙂

There’s enough people, I reckon, interested in buying something that I write that’s education-related for it to be a worthwhile proposition. I’ve got an interesting publishing model and pricing structure in mind. Subscribe so you don’t miss a post – I’ll be revealing more soon!

PS For those interested in what those ‘other’ answers were, they mainly wanted to know more about the subject before they would decide either way!

#movemeon book now available!

I’m delighted to announce that the #movemeon (e-)book is now available! I’d like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of the contributors, but especially Stuart Ridout for his amazing help and design skills. 😀

The PDF is available for free download:

The book is available at cost price:

Badges to promote the book are at: (no need for CC attribution, etc.)

Best of Belshaw (2009)

Last year I simply listed the ‘top’ 25 posts on this blog from the previous year in Top 25: the Best of Belshaw 2008. This year, I’ve gone one step further: I’ve created a book!

It’s available as a free download as an e-book or to purchase (as cost price) as a physical book from

Best of Belshaw (2009)

And yes, it’s uncopyrighted as well. 🙂

Free copies

I’ve ordered 10 copies and am going to be giving them away for free to the following (UK-based) people who have helped and inspired me this year (in alphabetical order):

  1. Dai Barnes (for his help with EdTechRoundUp)
  2. Lisa Stevens (for being a cheerful, caring sort of person)
  3. Nick Dennis (for being my partner-in-crime on various projects)
  4. Stuart Ridout (for his help with the upcoming #movemeon book)
  5. Tom Barrett (for being a truly inspirational educator and collaborator)

Over and above these I’ll be giving some to members of my family, so I’ll have 2 spare to give away. If you’d like one of these, please leave a comment below explaining why!  Thanks to those who requested a copy in the comments below – the two that were up for grabs are going to Daniel Dainty & Julian Wood! :-p