Brian's Blog‎ > ‎

Book: Why Don't Students Like School?

posted Sep 2, 2012, 4:23 PM by Brian Taylor   [ updated Sep 8, 2012, 2:34 PM ]
The subtitle of this book is "A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom." The author is Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and an expert in memory research. I highly recommend this book for any teacher, whether experienced or just starting out. It wouldn't hurt for parents to read it, too. The book is organized around nine cognitive principles, each of which satisfied the following four criteria:
  • the principle applies all of the time
  • the principle is supported by a great deal of data
  • using or ignoring the principle can have a sizable impact on student performance
  • it had to be clear how to apply the principle in the classroom
Here is a table from page 163 of the book. I've included it mostly for my own benefit. Much of it won't make sense without having read the book, but you will get the flavour of the ideas presented in the book.

 Chapter     Cognitive Principle Required Knowledge About Students     Most Important Classroom Implication
 1 People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers. What is just beyond what my students know and can do?  Think of to-be-learned material as answers, and take the time necessary to explain to students the questions. 
 2 Factual knowledge precedes skill. What do my students know?  It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic.
 3 Memory is the residue of thought. What will students think about during this lesson?  The best barometer for every lesson plan is "Of what will it make students think?" 
 4 We understand new things in the context of things we already know. What do students already know that will be a toehold on understanding this new material?  Always make deep knowledge your goal, spoken and unspoken, but recognize that shallow knowledge will come first. 
 5 Proficiency requires practice. How can I get students to practice without boredom?  Think carefully about which material students need at their fingertips and practice it over time.
 6 Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. What is the difference between my students and an expert?  Strive for deep understanding in your students, not the creation of new knowledge. 
 7 Children are more alike than different in terms of learning. Knowledge of students' learning styles is not necessary.  Think of lesson content, not student differences, driving decisions about how to teach. 
 8 Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. What do my students believe about intelligence?  Always talk about successes and failures in terms of effort, not ability. 
 9 Teaching, like any complex, cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved. What aspects of my teaching work well for my students, and what parts need improvement?  Improvement requires more than experience; it also requires conscious effort and feedback. 

Some parts of the book reinforced ideas that I've come across elsewhere and that I've incorporated into my teaching. Other parts were quite new. For instance, even though I've never given much credence to the theory of learning styles -- the notion that some children are visual learners, some are auditory learners and some are kinesthetic learners -- I thought it was an accepted truth. However, it's not an understatement to say that Willingham demolishes the theory and states that there is no evidence whatsoever to support it.

All in all, this is well worth reading for anyone involved in education.