Fires in the Mind

On seducing student interest

Faced with a classroom full of bored and disengaged students, many teachers try to wake kids up and draw them in with some zingy detail about the topic they are teaching.

“About 150 people are killed by lightning every year in the U.S.,”
a science teacher may start out at the beginning of a unit on electricity. She shows a news clip as an example, and the kids perk up, all right.

But there’s a big danger in that teaching strategy,
the cognitive psychologist Patricia Alexander reminded us in her lecture at Institute 1.

Those “seductive details” stick in the mind . . . but they typically do so at the expense of the core concepts. We’re seducing kids into pondering the wrong things. Later, when we assess what students really understand and remember from the unit, they remember that lightning kills. But they can’t explain the key principles of the science that’s involved.

How can we avoid sidetracking kids with seductive details? Don’t just strip your teaching of intriguing examples . . . but make sure they really illustrate the main points you want to get across.

You can find out if you’re on the right track simply by asking the class for feedback about what they are learning. If kids respond with the details but miss the main point, then you’ve found the wrong details to zing up your lesson.

Instead, you’ll need to explore the key material for better details—ones that illustrate the things you want kids to remember.

The “Fire-Starters” section of this blog collects teachers’ examples of how they whet students’ interest in ways that deepen understanding rather than get in its way. Why not send in yours? If we use it, you’ll receive a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind with our thanks!

A researcher’s Rx for “academic wellness”


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