How people think

Understanding is Remembering in Disguise, writes Dan Willingham at The Core Knowledge Blog.

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most-critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving-are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment). 

. . . So, understanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas into working memory and then rearranging them-making comparisons we hadn’t made before, or thinking about a feature we had previously ignored.

In part 1, Willingham explains that the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to let you think as little as possible.

Part 3 defends practice: Drill doesn’t always kill.

A psychology professor at University of Virginia, Willingham is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

About Joanne


  1. Proof that cognitive scientists should not in general attempt philosophy.

  2. Stephen, what the hell are you talking about?

  3. Thus, continued validation for what Hirsch argued about reading tests. The brain constantly seeks to understand new information by connecting it to old. The more general knowledge you have, the better you will be able to adapt new information and stimulus.

  4. “Willingham explains that the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to let you think as little as possible.”

    Alfred North Whitehead said that civilization advances by the number of things we do not have to think about.

    Someone is a good driver when they do not have to think about coordinating the clutch pedal and the stick shift. “How do I divide one mixed number into another?” If you have to think about that, you lack arithmetic fluency.