Like to learn, but hate school

by | Friday, June 12, 2009

In this TCRecord piece, Daniel T. WIllingham uses what we know about cognitive psychology to explain  Why students don’t like school. He suggests that

although most people believe that humans are good at thinking, it is actually the weakest of our mental faculties… Our minds are biased against thinking, because thinking is slow and effortful. In addition, it’s error-prone; it may not even produce an answer at all, much less a good one.

What we truly hate, according to him are things that are (a) either too easy; or (b) things that are incomprehensible. What fascinates us are problems that hit the sweet spot, not merely unpredictable but rather postdictable. He defines this as being initially be surprising, but then be understandable with a bit of thought.”As he says:

… interest is engendered by an appraisal process: that is, a process by which we evaluate the potential interest of something before we delve into it. If we perceive an event to be novel and complex, but also comprehensible, we find it intriguing and worthy of continued thought. Tasks that lack complexity seem too easy. Tasks that lack comprehensibility seem too hard.

Just two points here. First, most of school, it seems to me, lies at these two extremes, either lacking in complexity OR lacking in comprehensibility. Combine this with the diversity of student interests and background it is hardly surprising that even students who like to learn, learn to hate schoo.

Second, I had never heard of this term “postdictable” before but I think it is going to become a part of my vocabulary from now on. It helps me explain and categorize educational activities that work from those that don’t. Additionally it helps me explain movies and books I like – from ones that don’t. I know I hate predictable plots and stories (something I am trying to get my daughter to realize particularly around the typical Disney fare she so seems to love). However, complete unpredictablity is also a pain – a waste of time. Movies I like are postdictable… surprising at first glance but understandable later. Cool.

A few randomly selected blog posts…

Rethinking Little Red Riding Hood

Awesome retelling of the old tale... (h/t Steve Dembo @ teach42). Slagsmålsklubben - Sponsored by destiny from Tomas Nilsson on Vimeo. As Steve says (you can read his full post here) such remixing can provide interesting opportunities for teachers, particularly given...

Creativity Now!: Learning from Creative Teachers

Educational Leadership is the flagship publication of ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development). It has a circulation of over 160,000 and is regarded as "an authoritative source of information about teaching and learning, new ideas and...



Technologies like remote proctoring software and advanced language models are no longer futuristic concepts. They're here, and they're reshaping how we learn and how we teach. But with these advancements come critical ethical considerations. The deployment of these...

Laptops in the classroom

Ira Socol has a great post on his blog (SpEdChange) titled Humiliation and the modern professor, in which he speaks to the issue of students bringing laptops to the classroom. Some professors have banned laptops from their classes (I personally know a couple who would...

Teaching design, some ideas

I recently received an email from a teacher in Poland, seeking advice for a curriculum outline for their Design Technology Section. They said, and I quote: Unfortunately, I have minimal experience with the subject as a teacher or as a student in my younger years,...

STEM Futures at AAAS

STEM Futures at AAAS

ASU recently hosted, what is known as, the world's largest scientific gathering, the annual conference of the American Association of the Advancement of Science. As as part of this conference I was invited, along with Ariel Anbar and Trina Davis, to talk about our...

The strange beast that is higher ed

I have blogged previously about the challenges faced by higher education (here and here), exacerbated (or maybe revealed) by new technologies. Here is an essay by Charles Murray -- not a person I thought I would ever cite approvingly 🙂 He has a recent essay in WSJ...

Alien Games

A journal article on games and gender, that has been years in the making is finally going to see the light of day! The complete reference and abstract can be found below. Drop me an email if you would like a copy. Heeter, C., Egidio, R., Mishra, P., Winn, B., & Winn,...

Finding Nemo, the sea-quel

Our family's stop-motion animation festival continues with our latest offering: Finding Nemo, the sea-quel!!  This movie was conceptualized by Shreya and filmed by all of us over a couple of days. What was interesting about this movie was just how many technologies...


  1. Bob Reuter

    sorry, I seem to be a bit tired today… many little mistakes and grammatical errors… hope you’ll be able to read me nevertheless… 😉

  2. Bob Reuter

    Punya, I totally agree with you that parents always try to push the kids 🙂

    I surely give my father some credits for the germ he put in my head… but on the other hand, I really think that human are complex cognitive “machines”, where it’s not that evident what causes what to happen…

    But I do think it’s a nice story to tell me children and grand-children, than my dad has been putting ideas (and behaviours and values) into my mind/brain… even though I feel that there were many other “mental-virus-planters” in my life, who “gave” me -or contributed to- my love for postdictable cultural artefacts…

  3. Punya Mishra

    Bob, I agree that time and experience are needed to build these structures (be it for movies or music). As a parent though one is a bit eager to make it happen sooner rather than later 🙂 Moreover, this is not a process with a distinct end.

    I think your example (about your father) is an important one. It seems to me that you should give him some credit for putting the germ in your head that there were more complex things in the world. You have found it in jazz – not the music he was interested in… but the point is that you did make the “shift.” I think as a parent my purpose is to always point out the further horizon and prevent my kids from becoming complacent learners. As to how far I am successful, only time will tell (or again maybe it will not!).

  4. Bob Reuter

    by the way, the point I was trying to convey was that, maybe, we need time and experience to build up some mental structures that help us “predict” the Disney plots, or the musical schemes, and only later do we become sensitive to less-predictable, but still postdictable ones…

  5. Bob Reuter

    Well, probably you’re right… at least that’s what Vygotsky would say…

    Personally, I don’t know yet (not being a father yet, it’s hard to argue from the parent’s perspective)… 🙂

    However, I do remember one event from my childhood that fit’s here. My father and I listened to “my music”, which was pop and rock at the time… And he did not always really get it why and how I could like/love such awfully *predictable* music (that were of course not his words, but what he meant), when there was Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, Berlioz, Bizet, Ravel and Schönberg, to mention only a few… 🙂

    And now, some decades later, I start to appreciate less-predictable music, like jazz, and to find “pop” so boring… 🙂

  6. Punya Mishra

    Good point Bob, I completely agree… but isn’t part of being a parent always revealing future horizons of development 🙂

  7. Bob Reuter

    Maybe those movies are actually (still) postdictable for your daughter, while they’ve become predictable for you… given your life experiences… 🙂



  1. Making teaching suspenseful and post-dictable – A reflection task « explore. create. share. - [...] predictability and chaos, and most importantly makes sense post hoc. See these posts here and here on the idea…
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