Wandering minds in the classroom

It is the end of January, which in New Zealand means that schools are about to open for a new academic year. Kids around the country have been enjoying the ridiculously good weather over the summer holiday, but now are being fitted out for uniforms and taken to the stationary supplies store in preparation for another year of education. Some are looking forward to it, some are not. But it is also an opportunity for us all to think about whether our schools give our kids the skills that they will need for the future.

This is, of course, a vast topic and one that will not be solved in a blog post. Even just restricting ourselves to the psychology of education and learning means that we cover multiple academic fields. So I’ll ask a couple of related questions: What is the purpose of school education? What does Psychology say about how to successfully address those aims?

There are lots of aims for education that are important, such as developing a child’s self-knowledge and their ability to engage constructively in society. But at its core education is about learning things, and developing skills. When kids come out of school we want them to know stuff, and we want them to come up with good solutions to problems that they face. So how well do our schools do that?

The first thing to say is that New Zealand schools are one of our country’s most valuable and successful assets. Kids in NZ do very well at international assessments of reading, maths, and science; in the latest data from the OECD we rank higher than the UK or USA, and about the same as Australia. But more than that you just need to go down to your local primary school and compare it to similar schools in other countries to be impressed at the commitment of our school communities and successive governments in demanding high standards of public education.

Having said that, moods and trends shift in all aspects of human endeavour, and education is no different. The current trend is for measurement of school performance. In NZ this is called “National Standards” and is similar to “No Child Left Behind” in the US. The logic is that if schools are successful they should improve children’s skills in measureable ways. Students are assessed at regular intervals, and resources prioritized on those schools that can demonstrate their success at the measurements.

This approach to education has many advocates, but also many critics. I will not attempt a comprehensive evaluation, but it is useful to consider the nature of the educational experience that will and will not be adequately captured by measurement. Testing student performance encourages schools to teach materials for the test, particularly when their future resourcing is at stake. This may be a useful way to capture student learning of facts; if the school is successful at teaching known facts about clearly understood topics, students will do better on these tests.

However, testing is unlikely to assess students’ abilities to deal with novel and ill-defined problems. Here we need creative solutions where students can think broadly about different ways of assessing and solving a problem. Learning environments focused on testing are unlikely to drive such creative development.

My colleague Professor Mike Corballis has recently written a book pertinent to this very topic. “The Wandering Mind: What your brain does when you’re not looking” reviews broad areas of psychology and neuroscience that focus on how our minds seem only somewhat under our volitional control. You can try to pay attention to something, like this blog post or your boss talking in a meeting, and you may succeed for a while, but it is likely that your mind will eventually wander off and you’ll find yourself thinking about something totally different. In fact, our mind’s natural state seems to be one of wandering – when you remember one situation from the past it inevitably brings up other associations, all of which lead to yet more instances from your personal history. Work from Associate Professor Donna Rose Addis’s laboratory at Auckland also shows that this kind of personal autobiographical memory is linked inextricably to our ability to imagine events in the future. In other words, self-initiated memory drives our creative process. In turn, Mike notes evidence in his book that the more time your mind spends wandering, the more creative you may be, and this makes intuitive sense given that creative solutions will be ones that may not be initially obvious and for which a mind that ambles around may come across an unexpected solution.

Classroom education, and particularly education for examination, is in many ways the antithesis of mind wandering. It attempts to transmit a carefully articulated curriculum into the mind of the student. Any mind wandering will take the learner away from the prescribed material. The costs of this can be seen in Asian educational environments, which are exceptionally strong in some areas but weak in others. After 14 years teaching in Hong Kong I can verify that students who have been tested continuously from preschool become very good at learning facts, mathematical formulae, and mechanical procedures. But like many Asian locales, Hong Kong has recently sought to redesign its curriculum because it recognizes that its students struggle to produce creative solutions to problems, particularly when some important information may be lacking. In essence, students that succeed in these traditional learning environments do so by training their minds to stop wandering.

Psychological experiments also speak to the importance of creative learning. When we encounter new things, is it better for someone to show us how they work, or for us to explore them ourselves? Elizabeth Bonawitz at the University of California, Berkeley, plus colleagues at Louisville, MIT, Stanford, and Harvard, had pre-schoolers learn about a toy that they had never seen before. The toy had a number of features (a “squeaker,” a mirror, a light, and a button that played music). If an adult showed the children the squeaker the children were likely to spend a large amount of time using that feature alone. However, if they explored the toy themselves, they made broader use of all the features. The authors argue that “a teacher’s failure to provide evidence for additional functions provides evidence for their absence… Thus, pedagogy provides efficient learning but at a cost: children are less likely to perform potentially irrelevant actions but also less likely to discover novel information.”

There is without doubt a necessary place in our classrooms for testing and directed teaching about bodies of well-understood knowledge. But we should also be clear about the other aspects of learning that we would like to encourage. Hopefully, we can build learning environments for our kids that allow them all to develop a broad range of skills and attributes to benefit everyone.

For more information on the work of Professor Mike Corballis, click the following link:

For more information on the work of Associate Professor Donna Rose Addis, click the following link:

3 thoughts on “Wandering minds in the classroom

  1. “Meditation” is a pretty broad term. The approach of “mindfulness” is very interesting. It certainly seems contrast with mind wandering, except that you are not keeping your mind focused on one thing but rather stopping it from focusing on anything in particular (as far as I understand it). Mindfulness does seem very positive in terms of mental health; I suspect it is also linked to creativity, but to different aspects from mind wandering.


  2. Interesting article! Unfortunately most teachers forget to consider auditory fatigue when chastising kids for “day dreaming”. Factor in the overwhelming evidence of the presence of Otits Media in our early years cohort (data buffs can check the WHO stats) and it’s no wonder those plastic fantastic young brains wander!


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