Why asking ‘why’ is so important?

The following is an demonstration activity adapted from “What will improve a student’s memory?’ by Daniel Willingham, published in the American Educator, Winter 2008-09. I have done this with several classes and some teachers. Try it.

Please get out a blank piece of paper and number the lines from 1 to 30, so that you have 30 places to put answers. I’m going to read aloud 30 words and for each word you just have to perform one of three tasks. Each task is really simple. 

The first is called spoken to the left. If I turn my head to the left like this when I say the word, then you should write “y” on your paper for “yes.” But if I keep my head looking straight at the class, then you should write “n” for “no.” So for example, I might say, “Spoken to the left? [ I turn my head to the left as I say the next word.] Shell.” And you would write “y” on your paper.

The second task is called A or U. If I say “A or U?” you should write “y” for “yes” if the following word has either an A or a U in it. So if I say, “A or U? Doctor.” You would write “n” for “no.” 

The third task is called rate for pleasantness. For that one, I want you to listen to the word I say, and think of whether it makes you think of pleasant things or unpleasant things. Then write a number from 1 to 7 showing how pleasant the word is. A 1 means it’s really unpleasant—for example, the word
“injury” might get a 1. Write a 7 if it’s really pleasant—for example, “birthday.”

Use numbers between 1 and 7 for medium pleasantness. You have to listen carefully because there are three tasks, and I’m going to mix them up. I’ll tell you right before each
word which task you should do for that word. Let’s try a couple of each for practice; you don’t need to write your answers for these.

A or U? Save
Spoken to the left? [I keep my head straight.] Worth
Rate for pleasantness: Coin
Rate for pleasantness: Tiny
A or U? Moral
Spoken to the left? [I turn my head to the left.] Upper

I now read each item and then pause for students to answer, which should only take a moment.
1. Spoken to the left? [Keep your head straight.] Hundred
2. Rate for pleasantness: Corn
3. A or U? Cool
4. Spoken to the left? [Keep your head straight.] Rate
5. A or U? Jump
6. Spoken to the left? [Turn your head to the left.] Place
7. Rate for pleasantness: Urge
8. A or U? Country
9. Spoken to the left? [Turn your head to the left.] Entirely
10. A or U? About
11. Rate for pleasantness: Diamond
12. Spoken to the left? [Keep your head straight.] Into
13. Rate for pleasantness: Welcome
14. A or U? Window
15. Spoken to the left? [Turn your head to the left.] Hold
16. Rate for pleasantness: Airplane
17. Spoken to the left? [Keep your head straight.] Thread
18. A or U? Match
19. Spoken to the left? [Turn your head to the left.] Fleet
20. Rate for pleasantness: Fruit
21. A or U? Melt
22. Spoken to the left? [Turn your head to the left.] Training
23. Rate for pleasantness: Race
24. A or U? Only
25. Rate for pleasantness: Winter
26. A or U? Single
27. Rate for pleasantness: Disease
28. A or U? Yourself
29. Spoken to the left? [Keep your head straight.] Else
30. Rate for pleasantness: Camp

Now I’d like you to try to remember all of the words that you were asked to judge. You can omit the practice words, but see how many of the others you can remember. Turn over the paper you just used, and write down as many as you can.

This demonstration is very similar to the classic psychology experiment by Hyde and Jenkins from 1969, which considered the impact of two variables on learning. The first one looked at the impact of being forewarned or not about a recall test. The other examined how participants rehearsed or encoded words, what became known as level of processing. Each time I have done this task all participants have remembered a significant amount of words from the pleasantness task, even though they were not told there was going to be a recall test (in fact, there is lots of stuff in our memory that we didn’t try to remember, but it’s there anyway). This is exactly what was seen in the Hyde and Jenkins experiment. The pleasantness task was the “winner” because it forced students to think about what the words meant, which involves deep level processing. The other tasks merely involved a shallow level processing.

The Levels-of-processing effect (identified by Craik and Lockhart in 1972) views memory as a series of levels that vary in depth. The deeper you process information the more chance it will be learned and become a durable memory. In the words of Stephen Chew (psychology professor at Samford University) ‘you can have every intention to learn, but if you use a shallow strategy, you won’t learn…..If you think about meaningful connections, you are using deep processing, and you will learn whether you intend to or not.’ Willingham adds, ‘memory is the residue of thought’, or, in other words, what stays in our memory is largely reliant on what was thought about during the experience. Barclay et al., (1974) went further than the Hyde and Jenkins experiment and showed that what you remember depends on how you thought about something at the time or the aspect you focused on. For example, a week after a football game a group of people will remember different things about the event, such as the music, the dances, the food, or the actions of their favourite player.

This clearly has implications on how teachers should plan their lessons because the things we get students to do will be much less effective if we do not get them to think about what things mean or engage in tasks that involve shallow processing. However, this is easier said than done, but cognitive science offers some pointers: Michael Pressley in Comprehension Instruction: What Makes Sense Now, What Might Make Sense Soon’ suggests students should be encouraged to pose just one simple, specific question:

‘A large number of experiments conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated the power of “Why?” questions, or “elaborative interrogation,” to encourage readers to orient to their prior knowledge as they read (Pressley, Wood, Woloshyn, Martin, King, & Menke, 1992). In these studies, readers were encouraged to ask themselves why the facts being presented in text made sense. This encouragement consistently produced a huge effect on memory of the texts, with the most compelling explanation emerging from analytical experiments being that the interrogation oriented readers to prior knowledge that could explain the facts being encountered. The lesson that emerged from these studies is that readers should be encouraged to relate what they know to information-rich texts they are reading, with a potent mechanism for doing this being elaborative interrogation.’

I blogged about elaborative interrogation here

Stephen Chew also recommends elaboration and defines it as ‘making meaningful associations between the concept you are studying and related concepts.’ He also goes on to suggests considering how distinctive a concept is compared to others learned, trying to relate concepts to your own life and engaging in retrieval practice. The latter would involve recalling the critical information and ‘using the information in ways that the teacher is going to test you.’

Clearly, during the learning process there are times when students will have only shallow knowledge of the concept being taught and will for a time know isolated facts with only superficial understanding of the links between the information. It is at this point that the teacher needs tasks and activities that force the students to consider the inter-relationship between factors, and how facts can be used to answer a ‘Big Question’. Although, I don’t necessarily make students undertake essays all the time, the ‘Big Questions’ I construct a series of lessons around are dilemmas that require an extended answer. ‘Big Questions’  provide a metaphorical washing line for children to peg what they know to – in fact, having them organise information on a washing line could encourage deeper processing if they are asked to put factors in a hierarchy or into categories. During these activities we should continually be asking ‘why’ e.g. ‘why is that important and this not?’, ‘Why did you categorize that there and not here?’

Above is one way I might try to ensure students thought about meaning during my lesson and engaged in deeper processing, but there are many other ways. Daniel Willingham gives the following advice:

‘Obviously there is no one way to ensure that students think about the meaning of material. A compelling story may be appropriate for one lesson, whereas a carefully designed laboratory project works for a second, and a well-structured group discussion for a third. One possible common misconception is that learners can only understand meaning if they themselves construct the meaning in a physically active way. A moment’s reflection should tell us that “listening” does not imply passivity or shallowness. We have all been to “active, participatory” workshops that felt like a waste of time, and we have been to lectures where we “just listened” that were gripping and informative. Constructing meaning is a matter of being mentally engaged; being physically engaged might help at times, but it is not necessary.’

Willingham also offers the following suggestions when designing lessons here summarized below:

• Always try to anticipate what students will be thinking when they are doing the assignment. The completion of the task (powerpoint, film, baking, drawing) may over-ride what you actually wanted them to think about, such

• Use discovery learning carefully because students will remember incorrect “discoveries” just as well as correct ones. Although discovery learning may be powerful in highly structured contexts that make the correct discovery virtually inevitable, in others it is likely to prove unproductive.

• Design reading assignments that require students to actively process the text.  Techniques such as writing outlines, self-examination during learning, review questions, and previews can encourage or require students to integrate the material and to thereby process (i.e., think about) the meaning.

• Lessons should be directed so that students are very likely to think (or can’t help but think) about the goal of the lesson.

• Design tests that lead students to think about and integrate the most important material.  Providing a list of integrative questions for the students to study from and giving specifics information on the range questions they will tested on may ensure they think about the deepest meaning of the material that the teacher intended.


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