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Review of Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by

Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom

by Daniel T. Willingham

Drumroll of irony, please: I bought this book because it was the required textbook for one of my education courses, Educational Psychology, and this is the first time I’ve opened it. Those of you who know me as a student will understand that this is uncharacteristic behaviour and might even suspect I’ve been replaced by a school-hating doppelgänger. In fact, Educational Psychology was one of very few courses that I disliked during my time at university, and it was entirely due to the professor’s teaching style. The material itself interested me, as this review will show, and I completely understand that the subject matter is useful for me as a new teacher. Unfortunately, the professor insisted on using PowerPoint for her lessons despite clearly not knowing it they worked (to the point where we would shout out how to navigate among slides). I managed to get out of reading this book because she didn’t actually test us on the book itself; she merely “followed” certain chapters with her own notes, and there was only one midterm test; the rest of our marks came from assignments. I’m not proud of my performance in that course, nor am I proud to talk about my inattentiveness—but it happened, and I suppose it’s ironic it happened when the book is called Why Don’t Students Like School?

I loved school as a child and still love school. (This is probably a good thing, since if my career aspirations come true, I will be spending the rest of my working life in school, albeit on a salary.) School—and by this I mean “learning”—was, for me, the point of my childhood. Oh, I had plenty of fun with friends and got into my fair share of shenanigans. But I loved learning, lessons, and homework. So I’m at somewhat of a disadvantage, as a teacher, when it comes to diagnosing problems of disinterest, since I have so seldom experienced it myself. Fortunately, Daniel T. Willingham has come to my rescue with a book that concisely explores this issue and has recommendations and advice for how to help students learn.

I love the length of this book, which is rather short for a non-fiction science book (don’t let the thickness fool you, however, because the print is small). Why Don’t Students Like School is just the right length for Willingham to cover each of his nine “cognitive principles” and explain them without going into too much depth with the science behind the principles. A longer, more detailled book would doubtless have been more daunting, and I think Willingham has found the right balance among length, depth, and barrier to entry. You don’t need to have studied cognitive psychology by any means to read this book; however, despite its length, this is not a popular science book. Willingham’s style is a blend of the academic and the science writer, mixing facts, figures, and tables with intriguing analogies. Finally, every chapter ends with two bibliographies: “less technical” and “more technical”. Attention to details like that are what differentiate books that are merely interesting from books that are interesting and useful. Why Don’t Students Like School? goes on to emphasis this distinction in a variety of ways.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about reading this book is that it taught me how many pre-conceptions and biases I have already developed regarding pedagogy. Willingham challenges many tenets of teaching that I have absorbed, either through society at large or explicitly through my education coursework. For example, his seventh cognitive principle is “Children are more alike than they are different”, which leads into a discussion of the very common notion that different children “learn differently”, i.e., some people are “visual learners” and some people are “tactile learners”. Who hasn't heard this? I bet that most people, even those who aren’t teachers, have been exposed to this idea, whether or not they subscribe to it on any significant philosophical level.

Willingham tackles this theory in depth, describing the hell out of it so that we have a firm idea of what it is, then going on to say:

I’ve gone into a lot of detail about the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory because it is so widely believed, even though psychologists know that the theory is not right. What I have said about this theory goes for all of the other cognitive styles theories as well. The best you can say about any of them is that the evidence is mixed.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Hold on a moment, Willingham—are you telling me that received wisdom from “society” is wrong? That it doesn’t accurately reflect how students actually learn, and instead perpetuates outdated psychological fads? That seems rather far-fetched, but I suppose if you have evidence….

In addition to its twin bibliographies, every chapter concludes with an “Implications for the Classroom” section where Willingham lists explicit ideas and tips that teachers can apply to their own lessons. In the conclusion to this chapter, he advises teachers to “think in terms of content, not in terms of students”. So some content is better seen than heard and vice versa—students differ, but not as much as content differs. It would be silly to teach a music class by only reading sheet music. Willingham also opines that, “There is value in every child, even if he or she is not ‘smart in some way’”, referring critically to the idea that “Every student is intelligent in some way”. I’m not sure I agree with Willingham on this point, but I won’t get into it because intelligence is such a vast and difficult concept.

I recall, dimly, that we discussed the multiple intelligences/learning styles theory in my Educational Psychology class, but you can see how much information I retain when a professor’s teaching style doesn’t work for me. This is an important point that Willingham emphasizes throughout Why Don’t Students Like School?: students’ learning styles and attitudes and abilities are important, but they are not as important as they teacher’s style. I was more than unusually fortunate in my draw of teachers as a child, but even the poor teachers provided me with something that I, as an avid and eager student, could nurture into knowledge. Other students are not so lucky. If I had to choose a favourite part of this book, it would be the very end. Willingham includes in an endnote to the conclusion a quotation from Reynolds Price:

If your method reaches only the attentive student, then you must either invent new methods or call yourself a failure.

What an excellent sentiment. It refocuses the responsibility where it should rest: not with students who are inattentive, disadvantaged, or otherwise not achieving their “potential” (whatever that means), but with the teachers. Because, you know, this is kind of our job; this is what we do. If we resign ourselves only to reaching those students who embrace school, then we are doing a very poor job indeed.

With his sixth cognitive principle, Willingham makes a point that I think I’ve previously realized but have never really expressed as a single statement: “Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training.” In other words, students in a field don’t just know less than experts in that field—they actually think differently about that knowledge, owing to the way their brains structure and organize information. As one becomes more familiar with a subject—more practised—one’s brain becomes more adept at organizing information about that subject and applying different techniques to study a situation. Experts have a larger “mental toolbox”, as Willingham puts it. The lesson for teachers here is not to expect one’s students to think about problems as an expert would, and thus they won’t necessarily learn by doing the same sort of activities that experts do.

“Practice makes perfect” might sound trite these days, but Willingham makes a strong case for it. I haven’t read Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, which has popularized the idea that, on average, one needs to put in about 10,000 hours of practice in order to become an expert at something. Willingham echoes this idea, particularly when discussing the difference between novices and experts, and backs it up with some nice cognitive studies. He even takes it further and specifically refers to teachers. The last chapter of the book is dedicated to how teachers can improve, and this is a good quotation from the chapter on expertise:

This generalization—that experts have abstract knowledge of problem types but novices do not—seems to be true of teachers too. When confronted with a classroom management problem, novice teachers typically jump right into trying to solve the problem, but experts first seek to define the problem, gathering more information if necessary. Thus expert teachers have knowledge of different types of classroom management problems.

I didn’t realize how much I needed this reassurance, but that’s what it is for me. This is the year I will engage in “student teaching”, the period in which I shadow a teacher in a high school and even teach the class directly—and I’m terrified. What if I screw up? What if I step across the threshold of the classroom and they sense that I’m somehow not really teacher material? And I know, deep down in the most rational cockles of my heart, that this is not going to happen, and that I will be a good teacher—but that does nothing to calm my nerves! Still, Willingham’s reassurance goes a long way to reinforcing the idea that we have “permission to suck”. Although most often applied to students of the creative process, it’s applicable to life in general: I am going to suck, at times, as a novice teacher. I am going to make mistakes, and I will certainly improve—when I look back at myself ten years from now, I will laugh at those first few feeble lesson plans. Because practising almost automatically results in improvement, assuming you make the effort. I can see this in my own reviews here on Goodreads, which have improved gradually but noticeably since I began writing them. My process, in general, has not changed—I’ve just had more practice.

I’ll finish by touching on Willingham’s second cognitive principle: “factual knowledge must precede skill”. He opens the chapter by mentioning stereotypes of teaches who are obsessed with drilling facts into their students’ heads, including Mr. Gradgrind of Hard Times, a book that I read in first-year English and quite enjoyed. This was the chapter I approached with the most scepticism and perhaps even hostility, for although I have yet to read The Shallows, I disagree with Nicholas Carr’s proposition that Google is making us stupid. He makes an important point, but my objections have always been based on this nebulous, perhaps not well-defined premise that “critical thinking” is more important than knowing when William the Conqueror invaded England (1066). Well, Willingham attacks this defence and gets in a critical hit: in order to solve problems, first we have to know what we’re talking about. I don’t think he’s taking as hard a line as Carr, because he exhorts teachers to consider carefully what background knowledge is necessary for students to succeed at a particular task. And, come to think of it, I was already expressing a similar idea when I told my math professors why I want to teach high school: in my experience as a tutor, many university math students aren’t struggling with the higher-level concepts themselves but with the more basic operations (fractions, oh the fractions) that they should have mastered in high school. One needs a certain level of background knowledge and skill to succeed.

Of course, that is why I read so voraciously, and why I read books like this. Why Don’t Students Like School? reaffirmed a lot of what I think, challenged a great deal too, and in general has probably helped get my mind back in gear for the start of school next week. Unlike many books to which I award five stars, I am not going to gush and recommend this to everyone. If you have an interest in pedagogy or cognitive psychology, check it out. For new and aspiring teachers like myself, I will say this is required reading. With Why Don’t Students Like School?, Willingham neither patronizes nor panders to teachers but instead provides an excellent, helpful volume based on studies in cognitive psychology. It’s not anecdotal hokum; it’s not prescriptive pedagogical bullshit. It’s science, bitches. It works.


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