Understanding Why Students Don’t Like School:
by Book by Daniel Willingham
Reviewed by Alan Haskvitz
This is an interesting book that I read for only one reason; I wanted to see if he mentioned any of my methods of teaching. Call it a vanity read. However, as I read this book I became more interested in his findings and their possible impact on the way teachers educate their charges. Willingham challenges some of the sacred cows in education and provides some interesting support for his beliefs. Best of all, the author relates his work to helping teachers teach.
“The mind is actually designed to avoid thinking,” Willingham writes because the mind works slowly and takes effort. This is definitely something that most people want to avoid. Instead, the author adds that people rely on memory and it is faster and easier. For example, most people do things the same way they always did them. They are happy with it and it is easier. Of course, the problem with teaching is that the students become hidebound and so getting them to change their notetaking or study skills is a chore. No wonder it is said that changing a habit takes 30 days.
This fear of change and of having to use ones brain is also why some students don’t like school. They like to work; they just don’t like to think. That being said, people are also curious. So a teacher that can stimulate their interest by taking advantage of this curiosity has an advantage. First, it should be noted that students enjoy thinking, if it isn’t too difficult. That is why television games such as Password are popular with some individuals and why people read and play games. So a teacher needs to find this sweet spot, according to the author.
“This is where creative teaching comes in, using a combination of storytelling that evokes emotion and thought, and exercises that put lessons into context and that build upon previous learning. It’s also sustained hard work,” Willingham wrote. This process creates thinking skills dependent upon factual knowledge. It is that factual knowledge that must be stressed so that learning can be advanced and last.
Willingham, a research cognitive scientist, spent a great deal of his efforts trying to find how to reach students using different learning styles and discovered that the reality is that it really does not matter.
“There are different abilities, but really, we all learn the same way,” he said. “It’s not left brain versus right brain, or visual or auditory or kinesthetic. We learn using a combination of skills, and we are all more similar in our learning styles than different.”
In other words, as most teachers already know, in order to motivate students you need to reach their interest zone regardless of the type of learner. A good unit of study allows students to learn the material in a variety of ways and build the core knowledge base that enables them to advance. The author continually stressed the need for students to master basic skills, especially study skills. Since I spend most of the first part of every school year teaching my students how to take notes, how to provide proof, how to write test questions, monitor their time, create a battle plan for the day, use spare moments wisely, link learning, and transfer material at least three different ways, Willingham’s work was reassuring to me. There may be some teachers who work in a district where the State curriculum is the bible and anything not listed is forbidden material, but hopefully, the administration will learn from this book that before you can build you need a good foundation of knowledge.
Another interesting finding professed by Willingham was that intelligence can be improved through hard work. It is not solely heredity. In a study of great scientists the common theme was not the fact they were exceptionally brilliant, but they had the ability to sustain their work. Although Alfie Kohn writes that homework really does not result in improved learning, homework does provide a student with the opportunity to sustain their work on their own. Thus homework can supply the outlet for students to learn to excel and sustain learning on their own, as they are going to do in the future. Students may be talented in one area, such as music or math, but that does not mean they have a greater “intelligence” in that field. For the educator this means that they should add enough flexibility for a student to apply their learning in several ways.
Another point Willingham makes is that praising a child for being smart should be avoided. It gives the impression that if you are smart you are going to get good grades. Thus not getting an answer could make the student feel he or she is dumb. Thus praise should be for working hard and effort. Help the student understand that hard work pays off and that failure is a natural part of learning. That is the real value of assessment. It shows the student where they need to work harder. In the classroom I find students who get an A mark just look at the grade and not the questions missed. Whereas most students who get lesser grades look at each missed answer and question it. The grade is not an end in itself, but a measure of progress to building up a large memory base for future use.
Here are some additional thoughts expressed in Willingham’s book.
- The brain is not designed for thinking; it is designed to save you from thinking. It is slow and unreliable. People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers, unless the cognitive conditions are rights we will avoid thinking.
- Most of the time we do what we do most of the time. In other words there is a need to challenge our teaching style and to look at it with fresh eyes and the student also needs to be challenged.
- People like to think, but the conditions have to be right or they quit. Chains of logic should not be more than two of three steps long and the application of new ideas cannot be done too soon or the lesson is lost for future use.
- Students need to have the proper facts on hand to proceed with learning and the use of memory aids is suggested.
- When you plan a lesson start with the end in mind.
- Factual knowledge must precede skill.
- Learn to link or chunk information for easier recall.
- The amount of material you retain is based on what you already know.
- A student can’t do critical thinking without core knowledge.
- Memory is the residue of thought
- A teacher’s teaching style is what students remember. A teacher who is recalled as good is one who builds a learning base for the student to use in the future.
- A worthy goal is persuading the students that the lesson has value.
Here are some of Willingham’s basic beliefs that I have tried to relate teachings:
“People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.” This means that the teacher needs to create lessons that challenge the student to blend there base knowledge with new learning. I would recommend using Bloom’s taxonomy to create different outcomes from the same base material to allow learning to flow with more creativity.
“Factual knowledge precedes skill.“ A student must have a base of knowledge to draw on. And, in fact, that base knowledge is what makes it easier for some students to learn because it gives them a wider base to build upon.
“Memory is the residue of thought.“ Students have to be motivated to turn a lesson into a memory. The teacher must not take away from the student’s ability to learn by distracting them with artificial means that might take their thoughts from the basic objective. For example, a teacher who dresses up as a historic figure might disrupt the learning by having the student looking at the custom rather than what the character represents. I have read a number of research pieces that also note that music can also be a detriment to learning for some individuals as they become enamored with the song rather than the lesson.
“We understand new things in the context of things we already know.” The more vast the knowledge base the easier it is for a student to learn new principles. This takes time, especially if the child does not have a rich academic environment to bring to the table. Abstract principles and deep knowledge are not easy to acquire. Have realistic expectations. This type of learning must be built over time.
“Proficiency requires practice.” Building a base of knowledge is ongoing and needs consistent practice. And, not everything needs to be inculcated. Willingham recommends shorter practice sessions spread over time, but the content should also be related to more advanced work to offer a challenge to the student and provide the opportunity to apply what they have learned.
“Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.” Students are not experts and it takes time to build skill. Teacher assignments need to reflect this change not by asking more questions, but asking questions that stress the depth of knowledge.
“Children are more alike than different in learning.” A most interesting observation, especially since I was a co-presenter with Howard Gardner at the Imagination in Education conference in Vancouver. That being said, it is with willingness that I follow Willingham’s ascertation that although people have different learning styles and types of intelligences, the teacher needs to stress the content over the presentation style. In other words, a teacher should use a variety of strategies in the classroom depending on the lesson and be wary of only using one method.
“Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.” A teacher should promote hard work and praise it as previous knowledge builds a larger memory base for future learning. Since intelligence can be changed by the learning environment the more opportunity a student has to expand that base the better prepared they are going to be to meet future challenges and abstracts with a larger memory base.
Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved. What I felt was the most important part of Willingham’s book was his belief that experience is not the same as practice and that teachers need to continually improve their teaching ability. He states that teachers with ten years of experience do as well as teachers with 25 years of experience for one reason, after a certain time period they tend to “coast.” He relates it to driving a car. Very few people really can drive well, but they think they can because they drive daily. Seldom does a driver take an advanced course or even learn the difference between cutting the apex of a corner to dealing with under-steering or over steering let along emergency braking. The author believes that you should get the opinion of a peer to help you improve and make small changes as you deem necessary.
It is clearly obvious that professional development for teachers needs to be rethought. Too often such presentations are made by non-practicing teachers and offer little practical application for the busy educator. In my previous research I noted that inservice days need to be followed-up to provide feedback to the presenter as well as the teacher. Attending professional development given by successful practicing teachers also provides a common ground to explain how changes in cognitive development can be used by the working educator.
A final thought about Willingham’s work is that most teachers instinctively know how to teach well. They may need a few tips from a peer or from attending a conference where fellow educators are presenting, but very few of them need much more except, perhaps, a teaspoon of good job from those they serve. If change is going to come to education it needs to come from within and that is why the best conferences are those where teachers learn from other teachers. It would be very interesting to see if teaching another form of intelligence because we all know it is a talent.
Here are some good links:
Top 11 traits of a good teacher
How to Integrate Lessons
Middle School Brains: Teaching the Distracted
by Alan Haskvitz
Major links to Autism free sites
Special education links
Students with special needs links
Free resources for students with special needs:
Teacher liability and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
Special Education sites by area of need
Ideas for helping slow learners
Special needs physical education sites