Science of Learning: Persistence and Activation

Persistence is sticking with something, but activation is starting something. In thinking, both are important. If we don’t start thinking (activation) we can’t persist with thinking, and there is no thinking at all.

Halpern has persistence as one of the vital aspects of thinking. I have added activation because we have to start thinking before anything happens.

Students often have difficulty with activation and become expert procrastinators. Higher order thinking is difficult and so even when we can do it, we often put off really thinking about problems or actions. If we don’t start thinking about something, it doesn’t really become a problem. Often we hear about something that is wrong, something we need to start, something that we need to change, or whatever, and because of the difficulty of thinking and doing something, we put it off. We don’t begin to really consider whatever it is that has come up because if we don’t start to think about it, we don’t have to think about it. Procrastination isn’t just a problem for students but for all of us. How many colleagues do we have who know that their teaching is not ideal but put off, or ignore, thinking about what they should do about it? It doesn’t help that often the reinforcement they (and we) receive encourages us to procrastinate our thinking about changing our teaching.

Persistence is another problem for thinking. Persistence is vitally important if we are to really engage in higher order thinking. Higher order thinking is difficult and actually takes real energy, in the form of calories burned (about 25% of the calories burned by the body are burned by the brain). The brain is a conservative organ, and so will avoid dong difficult work, if possible, in order to conserve energy. As a result, persistence is a very real problem when it comes to consistently using higher order thinking skills.

Both we and our brains know that higher order thinking is difficult, and so, if we can put it off, or give up after getting started, we can save energy. However, this will leave us with the uneasy feeling that is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when we know that our actions and what we know are not in harmony. Changing what we think about something is easier than changing what we do. This is why so many of our colleagues can begin the conversation about the Science of Learning, but then tune out when the implications become real.

Why would we think that our students are any different from us? If the work is hard, if the thinking is real, if the problem is difficult, they give up. As a result, we see half-hearted attempts at the work we set them. Often, we see half-hearted attempts at real teaching for the same reason – lecturing and testing don’t take a whole lot of real thinking. When it comes to teaching, the usual is just do what we’ve always done, and it won’t require a lot of thinking.

As one of my colleagues in senior management once remarked about our relationship with students – if we don’t ask too much of them, they won’t ask too much of us.

How do we foster an attitude of both activation and persistence?

From my writing, it would appear that I believe that academics do not engage and rarely think about what they do, always taking the easy road in order to minimize their load. I don’t believe that for a moment. I have worked with some of the top academics in the world, and I know that their higher order thinking skills are the highest developed thinking skills in the world. They meet every criterion for thinking and are driven with a passion and single-mindedness that would astound the average person. Top performing research academics and I would even include most academics, epitomize learning and thinking. The problem lies in their single-mindedness, which rarely includes teaching.

Fostering an attitude of both activation and persistence is easy for good academics to achieve in their teaching. What drives and academic to engage in their passion? Motivation! What would drive an academic to foster the learning of higher order thinking skills in their students? Motivation!

To foster an attitude of both activation and persistence is a matter of motivation. We can use exactly the same principles of motivation that drive academics, from the academics studying a topic in the not so great institutions to the researchers producing outputs in the world’s premier institutions. The principles of motivation are exactly the same principles that can and will engage our students to study, work hard, and learn. All we have to do is use these principles in the learning environments for our students just as we apply these principles to ourselves. How well these principles are applied determine how well our students flourish in their learning to the same degree that how well these principles are applied for academics determines how well academics will flourish in pursuit of their passions.

Just like all academics are not created equally and the output produced varies from person to person, so will the academic engagement of our students in learning vary according to their personal goals and interests. If a student wants nothing more than a qualification, that is what they will work for and there is nothing any of us can do to help them engage in learning because that is not what they want. There is a saying that goes something like this: If you want to learn, I can teach you anything, but if you don’t, I can’t teach you anything at all.

However, if we foster environments of learning, the students who want to learn will engage in learning in ways that astound those who have worked as teachers and care about their students.

So, what are these principles of engagement I am talking about? As I list them, along with the attendant articles already written that provide more detail as it pertains to students, think about how many of these principles apply to you as an academic. I will present them from both an academic perspective and a student perspective with greater detail for students written in previous articles that I will provide links for.

The first principle is empowerment. If you, as an academic, are empowered to have control over your pursuits and engage in the study of the passions that drive you, you will engage with that passion and learn using the highest order thinking skills possible. If you empower your students so that they feel like they have control over their learning, you will see motivation emerge that you never knew existed. However, for academics driven by content memorization, the loss of control is unacceptable. Unless you are teaching in an area that is focussed on preparing students with exacting skills needed for a particular career (a teacher trained in an education department for instance), the content is exactly what you make of it. The issue of control is harped on by those who go on and on about learning the subject matter in a particular order. If the students are empowered, they have chosen to study a particular area because they want to know about it. They can figure out, with a little guidance, what they need to know in order to progress through a subject area. After all, they chose that area in the first place, and with the scaffolding that you can provide to keep them pointed in the right direction, they will astound you with their engagement.

The second principle is usefulness. In the first place, the students chose a particular area to study. In their minds, they have determined that what they want to study will be useful to them. Some of the underlying subject principles and skills that the students might want to avoid can be presented as necessary and useful if the students really want to have the subject named on their qualification. As an example, nobody enters the field of psychology to study behavioral statistics. However, it is a necessary skill to acquire in order to successfully study the subject area. Realizing this suddenly makes statistics a useful skill to acquire. Emphasizing the usefulness of the skill in understanding the subject area will increase the motivation of students studying the subject in order to achieve their long-term goal of understanding psychology.

The third principle is the principle of believing in themselves. The mindset of the student is critical for their engagement just as your mindset is critical to your mastering your field of study. If you believe that you can understand something through perseverance and hard work, you will persevere and work hard in order to understand it. If you don’t believe that you can ever understand it, you won’t even begin to try. It is exactly the same for our students. What they believe about their abilities to understand something will largely determine their engagement on a topic.

Interest is the fourth principle and the foundation for interest has already been laid in the student choosing their subject matter. An academic who is not interested in studying an area is hard to engage. That is why the Science of Learning is largely ignored by most teachers. They can get by well enough to do their jobs and are uninterested in learning more. Fostering interest is easier than most teachers think. The kind of interest that I am talking about isn’t a curiosity that is piqued with a cool demonstration. Real interest (individual interest) is defined as “liking and willful engagement in a cognitive activity” (Schraw & Lehman, 2001, p. 23). Thus, interest is a psychological state that consists of an affective component of positive emotion – the liking – and a cognitive component of concentration – the engagement. Interest, beyond the curiosity or situational interest that can be triggered by clever multimedia and dazzling demonstrations, must be fostered through the understanding of a content area. The kind of enthralling content detail that most academics relish in will rarely engage a student’s individual interest. If they understand basic principles thoroughly, this is when the student will explore their interest in the subject if they are empowered to do so. That is what happened to you as an academic. You found something really interesting in the subject matter you were studying and then allowed it to become the passion you enjoy today.

The fifth principle is a curious one, and I haven’t written about it before. The students have to believe that someone cares about their learning. This is related to the next principle, but if you think about it in terms of your own experience, when someone else demonstrates an interest in what you are doing, you work harder to foster their interest. When someone cares about what you do, your motivation is driven to even higher levels of engagement. Show your students that you really care. Pretty well impossible to do in a lecture/test learning environment.

The final principle is audience. You are motivated by your peers. When you write, present, or discuss your topic area with peers who have an interest in your subject area, you are driven to do well so that they will recognize your expertise and like what you are doing. It is exactly the same for our students. If their work is available for their peers to scrutinize, they will work twice as hard to impress them as they do to impress you.

Motivation lies at the heart of learning to think. If we can motivate our students to learn to think, they will learn to think, and they will learn the subject area that you are trying to teach them.

Motivate them!


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