Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham

How can any educator resist a book with the title “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

The answer is quite simple, according to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.  We all would rather not think if we don’t have to.  That’s why we have memory.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason why so few people engage in it,” Henry Ford once observed. The mind is not designed for thinking, Willingham says in the first chapter of his book.

Once we learn how to do something (like cook spaghetti sauce), memory becomes the brain’s big crutch. It’s the primary way we “avoid thinking.” When we want to make spaghetti sauce, we prefer to do it the same way we learned how to do it rather than rethinking sauce ingredients and recipes every time we have spaghetti. Think how exhausting our lives would be if we didn’t have memory to do the heavy lifting in our lives, if for instance, we didn’t drive our cars automatically but had to think through each step every time we drove to work.

Consider how much better our brains are at the complex operations of seeing and at moving our bodies, Willingham says. Our brains do them instantaneously and effortlessly. Thinking, by contrast, is slow, painstaking and unreliable. Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed for the avoidance of thought, Willingham writes.

Memory is residue of thought

Why don’t students remember more of what they’re learning? Willingham says teachers need to beware of preoccupying themselves too much with making subject matter relevant to students. If a teacher has students baking biscuits to learn about the Underground Railroad or working on a PowerPoint to learn about the Spanish Civil War, what students will remember is how to bake a biscuit and how to make a smoking PowerPoint. They will remember next to nothing about the Underground Railroad and the Spanish Civil War.

Memory is the residue of thought, Willingham says. So students will mostly remember what they spent a lot of time thinking about (e.g. baking biscuits and making the PowerPoint). “Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about,” Willingham writes. The goal of lessons and assignment should be for students to think about meaning.

One risk with an attention-grabbers in class is that students will remember the wrong thing. Willingham thinks teachers work too hard bridging class material to students’ interests. It may not be possible to bridge some topics such as trigonometry to students’ interests, he says. Trying to make these topics directly relevant to students is too much of a strain and might seem phony to students.

Stories structure learning

We remember what stirs emotions in us, which is why stories are so powerful in any learning situation, Willingham says. But stories have other characteristics that make them potent tools in learning. They have a predictable structure or familiar organizing principles. Stories are based on the 4 C’s: Causality, conflict, character, complications. With many foreshadowings and medium-difficulty inferences, stories continually force us to focus on meaning.

Story structure can be used in many lesson plans, Willingham writes. Organizing a lesson plan around conflict can be a real aid to learning, Willingham says. As complications arise and are resolved, this continually re-focuses students’ minds on the central meaning of the lesson.

The other widely accepted wisdom that Willingham tries to debunk is the idea of multiple learning styles. He is not disputing that students have different cognitive styles, but he says cognitive scientists have been unable to prove that students learn any better when instruction matches their style. So if Anne has an auditory learning style, there’s no evidence that she will learn more vocabulary words by listening to a tape rather than she would by watching a slide show.

Learning styles

It is content rather than learning styles that should drive use of different senses in instruction, Willingham says. “You might want students to experience material in one or another modality depending on what you want them to get out of the lesson; a diagram of Fort Knox should be seen,” he advises ” the national anthem of Turkmenistan should be heard, and the cheche turban (used by Saharan tribes to protect themselves against sun and wind) should be worn.”

While you may take exception to some of his sometimes contrarian and blunt statements, such as “some students are simply smarter than others,” his book is a good primer on the messy process of learning. He validates many traditional practices with the latest research in cognitive science. Memorization and use of mnemonic devices most certainly have a place in education, he says, and facts and knowledge are not tangential to learning, but are essential to learning.

Einstein was wrong when he said “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” Willingham says, in another of his stunning statements. Facts are what help learners bridge the many logical gaps in texts. The more you know, Willingham says, the more you will learn.

Each chapter ends with practical implications for the classroom. When Willingham discusses how students (and adults for that matter) like problems that are challenging but solvable, he suggests that teachers who want to find that “sweet spot of difficulty” keep a journal or diary. Just a few notes on how a lesson plans fares in the classroom is enough to remind a teacher how to set the right level of difficulty.

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” provides useful insights into what it’s really like to sit on the other side of one of those desks in the classroom.

“Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham, Jossey-Bass, John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

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