Book title: Why Don't Students Like School?
Author: Daniel T.Willingham
Publication date: 2009
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
Daniel Willingham is not a teacher, at least not of children. He is Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and his aim in Why Don’t Students Like School? is to explain how students think and learn, and make the science of learning, as cognitive scientists understand it, relevant to the world of education.
His central premise – that our brains are not designed to think, but rather to think as little as possible – is (excuse the pun) mind-blowing. Once you accept this idea, then the whole book not only makes sense, but also casts a new light on your teaching experiences.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
Why Don’t Students Like School? is aimed at frontline teachers who want to improve their understanding of children’s motivations at school and use that to design effective learning activities. This means that curriculum designers could learn from it too.
Willingham provides a great deal of evidence in favour of a knowledge-based curriculum from a very early age. The key take-aways I took are:
- Facts and formulae stored in long-term memory are a key prerequisite for successful reasoning
- Thinking about new things is really, really hard work (remember how you felt when learning to drive)
- The brain is lazy and has to be motivated
- Memories (learning outcomes) are stored according to how much time you spend thinking about things.
This last point is a very important lesson: children who spend a literacy lesson about Romeo and Juliet making puppets to act out the story may not remember the story, but rather how to make puppets.
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
Willingham’s tone is light-hearted, but still in-depth. He shares detailed descriptions of the cognitive science principles that underpin the book using diagrams and clear, unacademic English to make these theories simple to understand and apply.
Each chapter opens with a hypothetical question from a teacher about improving their children’s engagement. For example, ‘Why is it so difficult to understand abstract ideas, such as how to find surface area?’ The chapter then proposes an answer to these questions, illustrated with concrete examples for the classroom as well as studies and papers. In this way it is a practical teaching manual, as well as an explanation of educational theory.
Some of the cognitive science discoveries are also illustrated with problems and puzzles for teachers to try. For example, in the ‘candle problem’, you have to attach a candle to the wall in the upright position using only a box of tacks. Once the solution is revealed, Willingham points out that whenever we encounter the problem again, we will instantly remember it, so we can see for ourselves how the brain avoids thinking by using memories of previously solved problems.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence does the author use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
Willingham’s references at the end of each chapter are divided into ‘Less Technical’ and ‘More Technical’, with additional comments on what the reader might hope to gain from diving into these other studies. This is extremely helpful and should be adopted by more educational writers.
The research itself is mostly from cognitive science experts, but also includes a range of specific studies on educational outcomes. Seminal work from the 1990s, such as Csitszentmihalyi on ‘flow’, sit alongside much more recent ideas, such as Cepeda et al (2006) on distributed practice.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
For me, the real lightbulb moment from this book was the realisation that thinking is hard and how much I (and all other adults) rely on background knowledge, habits, memories and routines to get us through life.
It cemented my resolve to try and pass on as much background knowledge and useful memories to my students as possible, through drills and practice, but also explorations of more new books, experiences and different cultures that they would never find for themselves. Without this general knowledge, pupils will always find thinking about new problems extra difficult as they attempt to create everything from first principles – we must lift them onto the shoulders of the giants.
I have since put this into practice, for example, by explaining the concept of a ‘gerontocracy’ in Ancient Greece as well as democracy, giving a proverbs dictionary as a guided reading text, embedding vocabulary-finding missions as a weekly task, and practising times tables every single day.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
‘To think is a transitive verb. You need something to think about.’
Finally, a warning against making material ‘relevant’: ‘If I’m continually building bridges between students’ daily lives and their school subjects, they may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest and beauty in learning about things that don’t have much to do with me.’
7. Please add any additional comments.
If I had to recommend any book to those teachers who, like me, find it difficult to teach those things which we find easy (How can you not understand full stops yet, Colin?) it would be this one. There is no better guide to sympathising with a child who simply doesn’t have the background knowledge and practice to understand something which feels instinctive to an expert.