The title of Daniel Willingham’s Why Student’s Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is the result of overeager copy editors using provocative title to promote a book that might otherwise lack the eye catching appeal of most books in the area of cognitive science. The truth of the book is in its subtitle. There’s little in here that really speaks to why kids don’t like school. To write that book, you’d need to ask the students.
Misleading title aside, Willingham has created a readable yet challenging title that deserves a place in the professional library of educators. Like other books in this genre that I have reviewed (The Architecture of Learning, The New Science of Teaching and Learning, Mindset: A New Psychology of Success), Why Student’s Don’t Like School explores how cognitive sciences shed light on how learners learn and the implications this has for how teachers teach.
The author states that “…the teachers I know don’t believe they’ve seen much benefit from what psychologists call ‘the cognitive revolution.’” I agree. The old formula of “what, so what, and now what” as applied to cognitive science is desperately lacking the third element, “now what.” All of the studies, the brain scans, information about brain chemistry and the like is of little practical use to teachers unless it leads to more effective pedagogy.
Traditionalists will find much to like in Willingham’s book, which I suppose is why I found certain parts of it hard to swallow. Like anyone else, I tend to agree with statements that reinforce my preconceived biases. Willingham instead challenges them.
So why is school such a turn off for students of any age? Willingham posits that the answer is simple: “Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking.”
What? The brain is not designed for thinking? What sort of hogwash is this? Well, according to Willingham, it’s because our brains are lazy, “designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.” Rather than have to be completely processing new information all of the time. our brains prefer to rely on memory rather than think. Though he does not cite Piaget, Willingham is suggesting that assimilation is cognitively easier than accommodation. For example, when a young child learns that the four legged animal that lives in his home is a “cat” and then sees another four legged animal at her aunt’s house she assumes it is also a “cat.” When she is told it is not a cat, but a dog, her brain has to work harder to accommodate the new knowledge.
Yet, Willingham asserts, “despite the fact that we’re not that good at it, we actually like to think.” People like solving problems, scratching our our intellectual itches, and making intuitive leaps. But there’s a limit to how much energy we’re willing to expend: ”…here is no inconsistency in claiming that people avoid thought and in claiming that people are naturally curious—curiosity prompts people to explore new ideas and problems, but when we do, we quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, we stop working on the problem if we can.”
One of the ways that our brains conserve energy is to rely on memory, ergo Willingham advocates students acquiring, through drill and practice, certain basic sets of knowledge. Teachers should ask themselves, “Do your students have the necessary background knowledge in memory to consider this question?” If so, students will be able to more efficiently engage in solving it. In this way, “knowledge precedes skill.” Willingham further asserts: “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).”
I am less convinced. It seems to me that computers and the Internet enable use to rely less on what is readily accessible in our personal memory. What does need to be in personal memory is the ability to quickly access and assess various sources of data. But Willingham is the cognitive scientist, not me. He despairs that “the sorts of Internet content that students lean toward (for example, social networking sites, music sites, and the like) are for the most part unhelpful.” Of course students prefer these sites, but not when they are conducting research. It seems to me that the author is mixing academic and non-academic uses of the Internet to make a point.
Willingham recognizes that by suggesting that students have ready memory access to certain facts about civilization that we run the risk of cultural biases in subjects such as history, where “much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males.” But learning important cultural touchstones “pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning.” So much for simply learning the names of the original thirteen U.S. colonies or world capitals.
WIllingham acknowledges that there is a role for emotion in learning, stating that “Things that create an emotional reaction will be better remembered.” But he then goes on to say that “emotion is not necessary for learning.” I wish he would have spoken more about this apparent paradox. Other books on cognitive psychology that I have reviewed (see posts mentioned, above) indicate a clear role for emotion in learning. Indeed, it seems to me that as humans emotion is always involved in learning to some degree.
The author offers advice to classroom teachers that will, he asserts, lead to greater learning by students. “Structure your lessons the way stories are structured, using the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character.” The powerful role of storytelling is so rooted in our DNA (if you will) that it yields powerful benefits in the classroom.
As for more contemporary teaching practices, such as discovery learning, he says “Discovery learning has much to recommend it, especially when it comes to the level of student engagement. If students have a strong voice in deciding which problems they want to work on, they will likely be engaged in the problems they select, and will likely think deeply about the material, with attendant benefits. An important downside, however, is that what students will think about is less predictable. If students are left to explore ideas on their own, they may well explore mental paths that are not profitable. If memory is the residue of thought, then students will remember incorrect ‘discoveries’ as much as they will remember the correct ones.” To this I want to ask for proof. Surely there’s something to be said to students testing hypotheses and learning from failures as well as successes. The role of the teacher is to point students in profitable directions, of course, but allow them to fail and learn from failure, too.
Willingham passes along some wisdom about test taking that I wish all students would take to heart: “If you pack lots of studying into a short period, you’ll do okay on an immediate test, but you will forget the material quickly.” Perhaps this is okay in courses of study where you care little for needing to access that knowledge later in life. But if you are planning to be a physician, for example, you need strategies that will enable you to retain the material indefinitely and this calls for different study techniques.
Much is being made nowadays of teaching students how to think, especially to think like real scientists or historians. Willingham asks, “How can we expect to train the next generation of scientists if we are not training them to do what scientists actually do? But a flawed assumption underlies the logic, namely that students are cognitively capable of doing what scientists or historians do…. no one thinks like a scientist or a historian without a great deal of training.”
Up to this point in the book, some of Willingham’s thught have only mildly irritated me. But then he writes something that I think is simply condescending and wrongheaded: “Students are ready to comprehend but not to create knowledge.” It’s enough, he says, that students understand how the real experts in a field create knowledge, not to create it themselves.
Finally, Willingham points out (not for the first time; others cognitive scientists make this claim as well) that the work of Howard Garner and other in the the area of multiple intelligences has little basis in scientific fact. He “admit[s] I felt like a bit of a Grinch as I wrote this chapter, as though I had a scowl on my face as I typed ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’ about the optimistic ideas others have offered regarding student differences. As I stated at the start of the chapter, I am not saying that teachers should not differentiate instruction. I hope and expect that they will. But when they do so, they should know that scientists cannot offer any help.”
Progressives such as myself may not agree with everything Willingham writes, but we must respect the scientific basis from which he reports.