Why Don’t Students Like School?

On the whole it was refreshing to read Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. Despite the misleading title and overly long subtitle, Daniel Willingham’s new book offers an interesting mixture of the obvious and the unconventional.

First, let’s get that title out of the way. The publisher obviously pulled it out of a small portion of Chapter One, the only part of the book to which it actually applies. Presumably the reason they did this was that it would sell more copies than the subtitle alone would do. (Speaking of disservices committed by the publisher, Jossey-Bass, I also have to observe that the tiny font size is very difficult for readers over the age of 40.)

Willingham limits himself to nine principles, chosen on the basis of three criteria (quoted verbatim here, except for punctuation):

  1. Using versus ignoring a principle had to have a big impact on student learning.
  2. There had to be an enormous amount of data, not just a few studies, to support the principle.
  3. The principle had to suggest classroom applications that teachers might not already know.

These criteria lead to principles that Willingham casts in the form of questions, a form that I like in this context:

  1. Why don’t students like school?
  2. How can I teach students the skills they need when standardized tests require only facts?
  3. Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say?
  4. Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?
  5. Is drilling worth it?
  6. What’s the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?
  7. How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?
  8. How can I help slow learners?
  9. What about my mind?

Some of these are yawn-inducing, but some are truly intriguing. Willingham certainly goes against the conventional wisdom in #5–7. He makes a compelling case for devoting more attention to practice (“drilling”) than is currently in vogue; he makes an even more compelling case for not “getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians”; and he debunks the current orthodoxy that there are different types of learners, such as auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. In this last context he observes that Howard Gardner is usually credited with this distinction even though it comes much more from Gardner’s followers than from Gardner himself. I’ve never been convinced that there’s a good reason to refer to Gardner’s list as intelligences rather than talents, and Willingham also claims that “most psychologists think Gardner didn’t really get it right.” Most interestingly, he observes that not only Willingham but also Gardner himself disagrees with the following idea that is usually attributed to him:

Many or even all of the intelligences should be used as conduits when presenting new material. That way each student will experience the material via his or her best intelligence, and thus each student’s understanding will be maximized.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning Willingham’s observation that much of psychology can be learned from your grandmother.

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning