The complicated problem of education: making active learners is part of the solution

| July 17, 2013

Are you an over-thinker or a gut-feeler? Mathew Ling from Deakin University explains why it is important to understand the differences and causes of thinking tendencies.

Chances are you probably know at least one of these people: the over-thinker, who finds everything fascinating; or the “gut feeling”-guided under-thinker, each with their own charms and frustrations. The over-thinker is helpful with complex problems and earnestly interested when they’re not being chronically side tracked by whatever inane thing crossed their mind. Equally, the under-thinker is cooperative when you just need to get things done without a committee meeting, though sadly prone to getting themselves in trouble and hard to reason with when they’re unduly convinced of something. Chances are you probably haven’t wondered why they’re this way though. I have (I’m clearly one of those over-thinkers).

But I guess it’s important to explain why anyone else might care about this. I work in tertiary education, and sadly not all our students are the bright eyed and engaged intellectuals you might suspect, and the key word there is ‘engaged’. Student engagement is a big thing at all levels of education, but we generally talk about it in terms of what we can do to make students interested in specific material. I’m asking what we can do to make students more interested in all classes and even unstructured learning opportunities. Basically, while teachers and resources are important to student engagement, a complete explanation must account for those student factors also.

In concrete terms, differences in this thinking tendency predict educational attainment, skill acquisition, quality of learning and many similar outcomes, largely independently of intelligence. Our neglecting of this would duly be a huge oversight in preparing students (and duly people in general) for the world. By understanding these differences and their causes we can start to address one of those lofty aims of education, “preparing students for lifelong learning”, in a way that means more than just teaching them to read; giving them the will to learn to complement their skills to learn.

We’re currently evaluating our measurement of individuals’ tendency to engage in elaborative thinking and testing a model of why these differences occur. We hope that this will allow us to make those changes to our education system that are not only about making more effective teachers, but also fostering better students.

The flow-on benefits of taking this approach are huge as well. Good measurement lets us match your desire for cognitive challenges to your career, so your job won’t bore you to death; and the ability to change this helps us make a savvier, less gullible population, and equips the economy with more minds that can’t be replaced by machines. All things considered, the world is a complicated place; I’d prefer to have more people that are prepared to embrace that complexity rather than hide from it; and I think you would too.