And how does this apply to writers? Steve Jobs and the idea of "Ma"

From “How Steve Jobs ‘out-Japanned’ Japan:”

That ability to express by omission holds a central place in Jobs’s management philosophy. As he told Fortune magazine in 2008, he’s as proud of the things Apple hasn’t done as the things it has done. “The great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products,” he said. “We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas.” . . .

Jobs’s immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it’s nearly impossible to accurately explain — it’s variously translated as “void,” “space” or “interval” — but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object — the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? — and you were to respond “both,” you’ve gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.

I think of the various things I have that might have “ma:” a pretentious Moleskine notebook, a Go board, certain books. But where do objects end and the internalization of an idea begin?

And how does this apply to writers? Steve Jobs and the idea of “Ma”

From “How Steve Jobs ‘out-Japanned’ Japan:”

That ability to express by omission holds a central place in Jobs’s management philosophy. As he told Fortune magazine in 2008, he’s as proud of the things Apple hasn’t done as the things it has done. “The great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products,” he said. “We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas.” . . .

Jobs’s immersion in Zen and passion for design almost certainly exposed him to the concept of ma, a central pillar of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Like many idioms relating to the intimate aspects of how a culture sees the world, it’s nearly impossible to accurately explain — it’s variously translated as “void,” “space” or “interval” — but it essentially describes how emptiness interacts with form, and how absence shapes substance. If someone were to ask you what makes a ring a meaningful object — the circle of metal it consists of, or the emptiness that that metal encompasses? — and you were to respond “both,” you’ve gotten as close to ma as the clumsy instrument of English allows.

I think of the various things I have that might have “ma:” a pretentious Moleskine notebook, a Go board, certain books. But where do objects end and the internalization of an idea begin?

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History,Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better — Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better is, at $4.00, cheap and packed with ideas that have been circling Marginal Revolution for some time. The mix includes the trajectory of history, the current economic crisis, technology, and economics. These might sound like disparate topics, but they come together, and Cowen summarizes the current economic crisis this way: “We thought we were richer than we were” (emphasis his). The book is an attempt to explain why we, collectively, operated under this delusion and what continuing to operate under it might entail. Note that The Great Stagnation is only available on the Kindle and is blessedly short: you won’t find the kind of padding that would be necessary to make a traditional, commercial book. I wonder if he will write one or two more of these booklettes (for lack of a better term—do we really want to call them “Kindle shorts” or something like that?) and eventually publish the collection through traditional channels as well.

This description from Reihan Salam, pointed to by Cowen, is a good one: “I’m wary of summarizing [The Great Stagnation] — I really want you to read it for yourself — but the basic idea is very straightforward: Americans have grown accustomed to painless, automatic increases in prosperity.” I think this main point leaves out the idea of technological innovation as something underlying the fact that “Americans have grown accustomed to painless, automatic increases in prosperity,” but the point is good enough to observe.

Nonetheless, one unstated idea in The Great Stagnation is that by learning about the idea of stagnating industrial economies, we might learn how to get out of them. Cowen has one answer, which is to raise the social status of scientists (this is always a good idea but seems improbable to me: admiring athletes and celebrities seems like a nearly universe behavior). Once alerted to this large-scale danger, we might be able to take small-scale steps to get out of it. One might be to combine Cowen’s description of slowing technological change, which he explains thoroughly, to Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.

Johnson says good ideas often spring from the “adjacent possible” and that the idea of pure, lone genius may in some ways be overwrought. Notice the important weasel words in that sentence: Johnson is not opposed to the idea of genius, but it is not his chief concern. If we’re going to get more people together in the dense clusters that might lead to the major innovative breakthroughs necessary to power the economy, the solution might be to find a system or systems to implement some of Johnson’s major ideas. Universities already do a reasonably good job of this, but there may be other ways. For example, I imagine that Johnson would favor the idea of cities without major height restrictions, which would allow more people to interact and exchange ideas while spending less commuting time. I don’t think it a coincidence that Salam also thinks about transportation issues; he says “Commuting and congestion should be taken much more seriously then they are at present. Long commutes are a big source of misery for individuals and families” but mentions telecommuting as a possible solution. For many kinds of jobs I think that impractical; larger cities more amenable to families (through, for example, 50 story buildings with four bedrooms in each unit) might be a better option. If gas prices get high enough, this may become necessary, and it will have the side benefit of possibly increasing the number of Johnson’s adjacent possibles.

Cowen touches on how World War II may influence current American expectations. America was protected during World War II, while Europe destroyed itself; memories of the destruction are much more alive on the continent, which may lower their expectations for material success. I would have liked more of a discussion on how World War II may have driven scientists, artists, and others to the United States and thus driven some of the applied prosperity from 1945 – 1973. Is that part of the “low-hanging fruit” that is much discussed? If so, how great a component is it? Other aspects of immigration policy may have helped the U.S. in that regard too. Did the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which, according to Oliver Wang, “created preference categories for science, math and engineering-trained immigrants to come over” lead to a substantial advantage to the United States in technology? Incidentally, the act in turn favored Asians with strong math and science backgrounds, which may be part of the reason Asians are stereotyped with strong skills in those areas.

One chapter deals with the Internet and how much it lessens the overall costs of fun while employing a relatively small number of people. Computers do an extraordinary job of leveraging the talents of a single highly skilled person; this is part of Paul Graham’s point in “How to Make Wealth” and “Inequality and Risk.” If politicians want to redistribute wealth because there won’t be as many spoils from growth, as Cowen as they are and will be tempted to do, they will largely be doing it from the kinds of people Graham is talking about. Graham is also unusual because he is putting his money and mouth where his time is through the creation of Y Combinator, a startup incubator / funder premised around the idea that a small number of people can have a disproportionately lucrative or effective tech business. So far Graham appears to be right. The very lean startups he funds probably employ relatively few people compared to large, existing companies, and they also provide the kinds of “cheap fun” Cowen writes about. If they’re not employing relatively unskilled people, who will? Possibly no one, except perhaps the Federal government; hence the zero marginal product ideas that have been discussed by Cowen and others. But if the cost of fun is cheaper, from the perspective of an individual we might be frustrated, but not as worse off as we might otherwise be.

Although Cowen doesn’t say this, the whole world might be moving toward a university model, where the people who are having ideas (professors) do not capture very much of the economic benefit of those ideas. The people who have lots of Facebook friends or who get many people to watch YouTube videos derive little income from those activities but still like to do them. Professors obviously derive some income, but most people with the tenacity and intelligence (in that order) to get through a PhD program and become a tenure-track or tenured professor could probably earn more elsewhere. But if this kind of thinking and these kinds of life choices—trading income for prestige and raw knowledge—become more pronounced throughout the economy, it may lead to lower tax revenues and make people who like traditional kinds of consumption (cars, houses, vacations) less happy than they would otherwise be. There would be less money to pay off special interest groups. People who like writing blog posts to the point of doing so for no effective payment, like your correspondent, are probably better off thanks to the Internet, which Cowen identifies as the major technological innovation of the last 30 years.

So using the Internet may take the place of other kinds of (expensive) consumption. Still, how satisfying is the Internet “fun” compared to other kinds? I would guess more satisfying than TV but perhaps not as satisfying as other kinds, which books like Hamlet’s Blackberry or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows discuss. Does checking Facebook or e-mail 20 times a day make most of us better off, or do we have some kind of quasi-information addiction going on that leaves us hollow, like a conventional addiction of the coke / alcohol kind? I lean towards the Cowen large net benefit view but think the Hamlet’s Blackberry and “Disconnecting Distraction” view merit attention.

One other thing is worth noting: Cowen is more positive than normative. This is refreshing, since many people are primarily trying to write unsatisfying or simplifying polemics or argue about how a pie should be distributed instead of how to increase the pie’s size or why the pie looks like it does. Distribution makes some better off at the expense of others and may worsen status inequalities that often make people unhappy. Growth makes everyone better off. He is not overtly political, as when he describes how modern bureaucracies are enabled by record keeping and dissemination technologies. Such technologies can be deployed to great much larger organizations:

Despite the anticorporate bias of some left-wing thinkers, the New Deal and Progressive era initiatives were a direct result of the growth of big business and the rise of a consumer society. Big government and big business have long marched together in American history. You can call one good and the other bad (depending on your point of view), but that’s missing their common origin and ongoing alliance

He also observes:

Given that bubbles have popped in just about every asset market, and in many different countries, we can only understand the financial crisis by looking at some pretty fundamental and pretty general factors. It’s not about a single set of bad decisions or a single group of evil or misguided people It’s not Republicans or Democrats or farmers or bankers or old people or young people or stupid people or Christians or Muslims.

There are no boogeymen. There is (or was) a flawed system or set of system premised on false belief. Cowen explains some ways this happened and some ways we might react. The details of his ideas are too fine to continue discussing here.

Overall, The Great Stagnation does an impressive job of thinking at the margin, which very few people do, and in this respects may expand what we know and how we should think about the direction of the world. Still, it is hard for me to see it changing the overall shape of the debate in the U.S. There may not be an efficient way for individuals or small groups to change the debate, much as it is hard for a random person on their own to affect global climate change.

I still wonder how a particular individual should respond to The Great Stagnation, beyond working to raise the relative status of scientists and perhaps lowering the status of athletes and celebrities, approving of school reform efforts, and recognizing that high rates of growth may not return in the immediate future. If you’re trying to maximize income, you may want to think about learning more math and programming, since many jobs in growth fields now require them (I majored in English and am in English grad school but think I’ve picked up enough technical acumen to be slightly more dangerous than others in my field). You should also know that The Great Stagnation is non-technical and easy to read. Density of ideas in this case does not lead to impenetrable or overwrought prose.

A personal note: I’m pretty sure this is the first time I have reviewed a “book” that exists only in electronic form as I would another book. This may be a harbinger of things to come. In addition, based on how many other people are writing about The Great Stagnation, I suspect the eBook has spread to the chattering classes.

Early January links: Renting, leasing, and owning books, measuring teachers, sex and female success, Facebook, Borders, and more

* Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.

* Books owned and leased.

* The Problem of Measurement in evaluating teachers, with these problems still being better than no measurement at all, which currently exists.

* Touching Your Junk: An Ontological Complaint.

* The sexual cost of female success. My favorite line:

Hookups happen outside of college just as much outside of college as in, if not more. But colleges that have Greek systems, people are more likely to hook up. I mean fraternities exist for this purpose — this is a cartel of men who have covenanted together to try to help the brothers access sex cheaply and without strings.

* And Now, For No Particular Reason, a Rant About Facebook, which is basically how I feel. Especially this, regarding why Scalzi uses Facebook: “Because other folks do, and they’re happy with it and I don’t mind making it easy for them to get in touch with me.” In college I also used it, like every other college student, to efficiently figure out which girls (in my case) or boys (in the case of some others) were single.

* The [Possible] Future of China? Look at Mexico.

* I had never considered the idea of moving to Latvia prior to reading this, from Marginal Revolution.

* Have we reached peak travel? (Here’s another view.)

* Apparently, the Nissan Leaf is pretty good.

* Borders may be about to die, and Megan McArdle precisely captures my feelings and practices regarding its demise. Like her, I like the idea of there being more bookstores, even as I order most of my books from Amazon and Abe Books because doing so is cheaper and more convenient.

* This is not good but, regardless of whether it’s good, may simply be the new state of things: “In essence, we have seen the rise of a large class of “zero marginal product workers,” to coin a term. Their productivity may not be literally zero, but it is lower than the cost of training, employing, and insuring them.”

* Is law school a losing game? Implied answer: yes. Actual answer for most people: also yes.

* What went wrong at Borders.

* Reading the book.

* Southwest Airlines pilot holds plane for murder victim’s family. Wow.

* Speaking of Slate, someone wrote asking, “Is it legal to booby trap my house?” I can answer this: no, at least not lethally. You can read some discussion of a South Carolina Statue here. Or see Wikipedia here.

Why Don't Students Like School? – Daniel T. Willingham

Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.

Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.

The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.

People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.

Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.

He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.

Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.

Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:

The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.

We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.

But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Daniel T. Willingham

Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.

Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.

The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.

People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.

Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.

He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.

Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.

Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:

The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.

We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.

But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.

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