• Emily Rose Seeber

Book Review: Why Don't Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham

Haven't we all wondered that? Those of us who break our backs to make learning as fun as possible, spend hours reworking a resource so that students will be challenged just the right amount, or be able to see how the topic links to the real world, or to make an exciting practical work just right. And they're still ungrateful... most of the time.

Principle 1 - Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.

This is not just students; this is everyone. Often when we think we are thinking, or that students are thinking, they are actually just remembering how they have done a task before and are not really thinking (in the cognitive scientists' sense of the word). The brain will always take shortcuts because actual thinking is a vague and uncertain way to solve a problem. This means that we need to make sure that lessons contain thinking tasks which entail a moderate amount of challenge. (This reminds us teachers of Vygotsky's notion of the zone of proximal development; students need to get into the zone for thinking.)

Lessons need to have changes in pace as it is difficult for students to think for a whole lesson. We need to mix learning content with building up skills, and then some problem solving. We should also plan lessons so that the problem-solving aspect comes when students are cognitively ready for it - when they have the background knowledge to have a good chance of success - otherwise the problem will be meaningless for them. Planning for the 'big question' to come half way through the lesson, rather than using it as a 'hook' at the beginning when it might be lost, is one way to make it more likely that students will really think about the problem.

Principle 2 - Factual knowledge must precede skill.

Willingham argues that without factual knowledge, students cannot build up understanding of concepts. Knowledge recall is required for 'chunking' of information. Thinking is limited by space in the working memory, so students who have factual knowledge chunked need less space in their working memory for the facts than a student who needs to look up all of the disparate pieces of information each time they wish to use them, reducing the space in working memory available for problem-solving.

For this reason I have re-introduced regular learning homework for my students, which are then tested in the following lesson. Firstly, this reduces my marking workload so that when I do take in work I have the time to give higher quality feedback, and secondly, to improve my students' factual recall and, as a result, their problem solving skills.

Principle 3 - Memory is the residue of thought.

What are students actually thinking about and processing in your lessons? That is what they will actually remember. This chapter has played on my mind over the last week on repeat. Willingham gives examples of class activities which lead to unintended thinking taking place in the lesson. For example, setting a task for students to complete some research and make a presentation on Power Point. Are the students thinking about the research, or are they just thinking about fancy ways of using Power Point? If the answer is the latter, then that is what they will remember.

This principle has implications for tasks in which students work independently. If a student spends more of the lesson thinking about the wrong ideas than the right ones, then those wrong ideas are going to be what sticks, regardless of how good the teacher's intervention is. We need to step in when students are going too far off track with sufficient time left in the lesson for students to develop the correct neural connections. Independent work is vital, but we need to make sure we have planned regular formative assessment to identify any students who are building up misconceptions before they are embedded into memory.

Principle 4 - We understand new things in the context of what we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.

It is very hard to get students to understand abstract ideas. This is because the brain pulls up knowledge which is related to the surface structure of a problem (the context), rather than the deep structure (the abstract idea). Students need a lot of examples as this helps them to get to grips with the deep structure, but they also need to be asked to compare them which helps the deep structure become more explicit.

"Understanding is remembering in disguise."

Often my students can solve a problem, but they complain that they don't really understand it. Willingham's quote above is really important for putting this into context for us teachers; there is no magic way of getting students to understand, they need to have sufficient memory of the strategy of solving a particular type of problem and then they will feel as if they understand it. Building up this kind of memory takes deliberate practice so that students can both identify the kind of problem they are trying to solve and recall the correct strategy. That is all understanding is. So we need to plan plenty of practice into our lessons: but how can we do that without making our lessons incredibly boring?

Principle 5 - It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.

Practice of a new concept is vital for two main reasons, according to Willingham:

  1. Practice makes memory long lasting as the skills being practised become automatic.

  2. Practice improves students' ability to transfer their knowledge and understanding to different situations.

In order to avoid the boring kind of drilling which will (probably) turn our students off our lessons Willingham suggests that teachers reflect on which skills we really need students to have on auto-pilot rather than carrying out extended practice of every skill they use. In Chemistry, for example, how to balance chemical equations might be an example. Once we have decided which skills we want to 'drill' into students we need to ensure that practice is spaced out to aid memory retention (what do we always tell them about revision?), and fold this practice into more advanced skills (such as balancing equations as part of practising moles calculations) to prevent it from getting boring.

Principle 6 - Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training.

As experts in our subjects we can intuitively select the correct method of solving a problem, ignore irrelevant information and anticipate any problems with the solution. Willingham suggests that as students are not experts, they do not think like experts, and trying to get them to is not really the point. There is no shortcut to becoming an expert through having an extensive background knowledge and a lot of practice with the concepts.

This means that we should not worry too much about getting students to "think like scientists", because they are not scientists. They are still in training. When I want them to plan an investigation it takes them a huge amount of time and effort because they are not scientists. They make strange errors in their reasoning and haven't evaluated their solution because they are not scientists. Most lessons should focus on building up knowledge and understanding because that is essential for learning in the pre-expert level before knowledge creation at expert level. It is okay, however, to do some "thinking like scientist" tasks in classrooms, as this can be good for motivation (which is a valuable end in itself), although it has little effect on students' cognitive progress.

Principle 7 - Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.

In this chapter, Willingham acts like the Grinch telling us that cognitive science cannot back up claims about students differing in cognitive or learning styles. Most of us are now familiar with the idea that the VAK theory has only mixed evidence to back it up at best. However, Willingham does offer some examples about how reflecting on cognitive styles can be helpful to us teachers:

  • Think in terms of content - it may be useful to approach a particular topic from the perspective of one cognitive style, e.g. holistically, or visually, but choosing the best method will be related to the content you are trying to deliver.

  • Changing the cognitive style that students are using in a lesson can help bring them back to attention and change the pace, e.g. moving from analysing graphs, to discussing findings with a partner.

Principle 8 - Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

This is yet more literature emphasising the 'growth mindset' advice set out by Carol Dweck in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. It is, however, a fitting end to the book. Willingham gives us the usual advice, "praise effort, not ability", "tell them hard work pays off", "treat failure as a natural part of learning", and "show students you have confidence in them", as well as drawing together the advice earlier on the book to give two more principles for educators, "don't take study skills for granted" and "catching up is the long term goal".

Firstly, many students who appear to be slower learners simply haven't built up the study skills they need to revise properly and learn effectively as they go through the courses. We need to put study skills programs in place for students. Secondly, it is easier to learn when you already have more background knowledge, so students who are behind will just get more and more behind without intervention. Students have very similar potentials and allowing some students to fall and stay behind is not good enough. The solution is that they need to work harder to catch up with their peers (no surprises there!); there is no shortcut and should be no giving up!

Principle 9 - Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practised to be improved.

Which means that we need to use some of these ideas in the classroom, even if they feel uncomfortable the first time, because they need to be practised. Using some of these strategies can help us to take advantage of the hard-wiring of students' brains to help them learn, rather than fighting against it. It it through deliberate practice (to make it automatic) and reflection on our teaching (to access the deep structure) that we become more in control of what our students are thinking about and learning during our classes.

Willingham's book is a highly readable account of how cognitive science can be used to inform classroom practice. Each chapter is framed around a question which, he believes, educators will be interested in, and a principle they can use to inform their practice. He also gives plenty of examples of how to use his principles in real classroom situations: this meant that, as I was reading each chapter, I was thinking of ways I could adapt my planning to take advantage of the hard-wiring in my students' brains.

Readability: 4/5

Interest: 4/5

Usefulness for classroom practice: 5/5

#bookreview #pedagogy #psychology #cognitivescience #growthmindset


© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.