What Engages the Brain?


Willingham In Why Don’t Students Like School, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham describes true thinking (not just relying on memory or how you’ve always done something) as “slow, effortful, and uncertain.” We tend to avoid this kind of thinking, Willingham says, unless our fragile curiosity is nurtured in an environment that includes

  • challenge yet opportunities to be successful,
  • adequate background knowledge in our long-term memory,
  • adequate environmental clues, and
  • room in our working memory.

Willingham makes several suggestions for enticing students through their brains:

  • Plan lessons around essential questions and solvable problems.
  • Respect students’ cognitive limits, build in breaks, and make sure students have the background knowledge necessary to approach their work.
  • Differentiate and tier assignments, maintaining the standard as the baseline.
  • Play with pacing, and see how your class responds. The brain automatically responds to change; do your students need more or less of these to sustain interest?
  • Instead of thinking in terms of relevance, which can be hard to pull off for diverse groups, consider the question that will engage students and make them want to know the answer.

Odds are that your lessons already include some or all of these strategies. Has brain-friendly engagement paid off in your classroom?