Developing Smarter Students

Have you ever thought you knew something, then tried to explain it to someone else and realized you didn’t? Researchers call this the illusion of explanatory depth: We humans think we understand the world better than we really do. This is a problem. “When you teach something to someone else, that’s when you really learn it,” said Arthur Markman, Ph.D. “Because you discover all the pieces you didn’t understand.”

Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and the executive editor of Cognitive Science, spoke at the Learning & the Brain Conference yesterday in New York. He argues that acquiring real knowledge—a true understanding of how something works—and being able to communicate that knowledge are among the most important skills a student can have.

Speaking to an audience including many teachers, Markman emphasized good study habits. “We have to stamp out multitasking. I’m on a crusade to eliminate this,” he said, specifically targeting smart phones. It’s easy to get caught up in texting, browsing the web, or playing a game on your phone while studying. But multitasking really isn’t about doing two things at once; our brains switch between the two activities and there is a damaging cost. Markman suggested “technology-free zones,” not just for students but for workers who may be tempted to check email during a meeting.

The portability of smart phones and laptops give students the impression they can study anywhere, including their bed, Markman said. This can make students drowsy while studying, or it could lead to sleep disruption because students have now associated their bed with a separate activity. Neither are good. Studying at a desk is more effective.

Even if knowledge is acquired in a more efficient way, there is still the issue of application. Markman said we often have the information needed to solve a problem, we just need to figure out how to access it. Markman calls this “finding the essence of the problem” and suggests using proverbs to learn how to do so. He mentioned one—“The noise of the wheels does not measure the load in the wagon”—and asked the audience members if it reminded them of another proverb. Many seemed to think of “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” because of the shared terminology. But their meanings are not similar. Once you think of the meaning of the first proverb—that an object’s surface properties are not a good reflection of its inner essence—you may think about proverbs such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover” or “All that glitters isn’t gold.” Markman compared this approach to James Dyson’s invention of the bagless vacuum cleaner. Instead of thinking about the bag itself, Dyson considered what a vacuum really does: collects dust and air and then separates them. This was similar to the cyclones used in sawmills, and thus Dyson had his solution.

By defining proverbs, Markman said, “You are training yourself to look at everything in the world as if it’s like a proverb—that it has an essence underneath it that goes beyond the specific objects. Over time, this will automatically bring solutions to mind.”

Markman thinks that this process of describing the nature of the problem should be built into the academic curriculum. “We’re not trying to create good test-takers. We’re trying to create good thinkers.” He said that the intended goal of standardized tests is not to determine how well people can do on the test, but it is difficult to create tests that go beyond that. That doesn’t mean students can’t be taught smarter habits, such as writing or saying aloud the three key points from any lesson before moving on to the next class.

Changing habits, curing the illusion of explanatory depth, and getting at the essence of a problem “will make smarter students despite the testing,” Markman said. “It doesn’t require doing all that much beyond what we’re doing already except to acknowledge that this is the way our minds work.”

–Andrew Kahn

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