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When Thinking Gets in the Way of Learning

Not overthinking

Wait! Learning without much thinking? Isn’t this a recipe for not really learning? Isn’t the purpose of education to improve cognitive skills and create good thinkers? Well, of course but… There is a whole side to learning that is implicit, requiring little overt thinking or teaching. While this is readily apparent in young children as they learn to interact, talk and walk it is less apparent in older children – especially those confined to classrooms. Even in traditional settings students learn in low-thought ways, from sensory experience, direct observation, and naturally directed attention (play, discussions, storytelling) and when learning leads to “flow” – the state of full absorption in an activity. We explore this side of learning in our upcoming book Creating Capable Kids.

Two new studies deepen our understanding of learning in low-thought and effort situations. The first, shows how over-thinking can complicate learning while the second investigates how the brain knows how to stop thinking to promote learning. Both studies involve multiple universities, but include MacArthur Fellow and UPenn professor Danielle Bassett.

The first study looked at neural activity of students as they learn to play a simple game over the course of six weeks. The researchers were trying to expose what differentiates those who learned the game quickly from slower learners. The major finding was that students who took the least time to learn the game relied on implicit visual-perceptual skills and motor processes (planned action) rather than memory or higher-order thinking to master the game.

Those who took longer spent more time deeply thinking about the game, using their frontal lobes and “cognitive control areas” to figure it out. The researchers believe the slower students where over-thinking, trying to explicitly figure out the rules and sequences of the game. The slower learners deliberately looked for errors and planned corrections while the faster learners took a perceptual action, trial and error approach – the way that toddlers typically learn.

The second study, found in the journal Nature Neuroscience, also involves scanning students’ brains as they learn six 10 notes scales. Here again, slow deliberate sight reading typical of beginners gave way to automatic performance but at different rates for fast and slow learners. The faster learners abandoned deliberate problem solving and effortful strategies more quickly that slower learners. The faster students stopped relying on the heavy thinking and executive control of the brain and started automatically attempting previously unpracticed scales the faster they learned.

It’s no secret that reaching the state of automaticity when learning frees up cognitive processes for other, often deeper, purposes. Students who have automatic recall to multiplication facts or effortlessly spell words as they write have a distinct advantage over those who must laboriously figure out math facts and spellings.

These studies point out that faster learners shift to lower-order processes before they have reached the point of automaticity. Slower learners use more explicit means of learning, consciously teaching themselves while the faster learners had moved on to more implicit ways of learning.  Faster learners non-consciously trust sensory-motor areas of the brain, switching away from analytical, and strategy planning processes. They do less thinking, and much less over-thinking, trusting their implicit abilities to learn.

The next question to investigate is: Can this ability be explicitly taught or implicitly enhanced?

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