Chapter3: Notes on “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham (Wherein we read a “grown-up” book this summer.)


     Don’t you love the school scenes in the Peanuts movies?   No matter what the subject is, the teacher’s voice is depicted by “wah-wah-wah-wah.”  Do you ever think that is what your students hear when they listen to you?  Have you ever had a class seemingly engage in the day’s activities with enthusiasm, only to find that they retained very little of what you thought you were teaching?  In his new book, Why don’t Students like School?, Daniel Willingham outlines nine principles derived from cognitive psychology to help you connect with the developing minds of your students.

     The nine principles are:

  1. “People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.”   Students don’t like school because they are frustrated or bored.  The amount of thinking required must be just right to retain their interest.  Teachers must know their students in order to plan effective lessons.
  2. “Factual knowledge precedes skill.”   No matter how much schools want to teach “higher order thinking skills” there must be factual knowledge in the long-term memory to facilitate the process of thinking.  For example, reading comprehension requies the background knowledge an author assumes the reader can supply.  Willingham postulates that the 4th grade reading slump often seen in students from underprivileged homes is caused by the lack of this type of knowledge. I became interested in Willingham’s work through this video on reading comprehension
  3. “Memory is the residue of thought.   Here is where Willingham’s recommendations seem to contradict those of  other educational experts.  As he says in his conclusion, he is basing his principles on cognition, not just motivation.  Since memory can only come from what students actually think about, teachers must be very careful to motivate students to attend to a lesson without taking their minds off of the learning objectives.  Some possible distracting motivators he mentions are; attention-getting devices such as costumes and props, artificial items to create student relevance, and the use of a new technology to assist students in producing a product.  He suggests using a story structure in any lesson and moving attention grabbers to the middle of a lesson to sustain interest in the material being taught.  Willingham models this well in each chapter of  his book.
  4. “We understand new things in the context of things we already know.”  Abstract principles and deep knowledge are not easy to acquire.  Have realistic expectations. This type of learning must be  built over time.
  5. “Proficiency requires practice.”  Your grandmother was right.  “Practice makes perfect.”  This is true for basketball, playing the piano, learning the multiplication tables, and teaching.  Teachers should choose carefully what foundational skills need to become automatic through practice.  Shorter practice periods spread over time are better than long cram sessions.  Practice can be done while working on more advanced skills.
  6. “Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.”  Students will not be able to think like historians and scientists with many years of experience in their work.  Experts were all once novices.  They had to learn certain fundamental knowledge and skills in order to develop the the thought processes they now have.
  7. “Children are more alike than different in learning.”   Oops!  If Willingham is correct, most teachers  have  wasted a lot of in-service time on identifying visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.  Willingham asserts that even though people have different abilities and preferences, it is the content that should determine the mode of instruction.  No matter what type of input students prefer,  certain types of information and skills require visual, auditory or kinesthetic attention.  Using a variety of instructional strategies in the classroom is good practice for all students.  Learn more about his position in this YouTube video.
  8. “Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.”   Much of what we measure as intelligence is shaped by the prior knowledge we have stored in our long term memories.  This is due to both genetic and environmental factors.  Some studies favoring a genetic basis for intelligence may have missed the fact that genetic factors cause people to seek out different environments.  Therefore, environment may play an even greater role than once thought.  In order to foster the hard long-tern work needed to increase intelligence, teachers should praise effort more than ability and increase students’ confidence in their ability to improve.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.  Experience is not the same as practice.  Teachers often improve in their teaching until they reach a level where they begin to coast.  Videotaping your teaching, keeping a diary, and pairing with a trusted colleague can help you to identify the areas you need to improve.  Be realistic and don’t try to change everything at once.

     By reading this book, you will , also, learn about the limits of working memory, chunking, and the importance of stored facts and processes in long-term memory.  This understanding should help you pace instruction for optimum comprehension.  Willingham’s modeling of his recommended “story structure” in each chapter gives you concrete examples of good cognitive lesson design.  I plan to keep this book handy this fall to use in planning my library and information skills lessons. 

     Willingham’s book is interesting, thought-provoking, and pragmatic.  Some will find a few of his assertions controversial.  I think his viewpoints will help to ground us in sound timeless instructional practice as we meet the challenges of a 21st century education.

     What do you think ?  Will we defeat our goals in teaching children to think if we neglect to teach them foundational factual knowledge?  How do we incorporate technology so that students are engaged in thinking about the skill being taught more than the medium?  Do you think learning styles matter?  Do you think your teaching , encouragement and guidance has helped your students raise their intelligence levels?

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Melissa Techman
    Jul 11, 2009 @ 03:05:09

    Thanks for a great review and expanded look at Willingham’s book. I think you’re right about the value and I plan to buy one too for my professional collection. He is here at UVA and is sometimes on the local PBS radio station; he had fascinating answers to audience questions. Are you seeing some cog. psych. principles here that were presented by Gladwell at NECC09?
    Well-done post, thanks!


    • dj345
      Jul 13, 2009 @ 19:39:58

      Thanks for the feedback, Melissa. I had to search around for some Gladwell video clips from NECC to reply to your question. Yes, there is overlap in the emphasis they both place on intelligence, ability and success being dependant on environmental opportunities and practice. So one of my thoughts right now is on the importance of schools and teachers as “environmental change agents.”

      Scott McLeod interviewed Dan Willingham today for the CASTLE book club. The podcast is available here.


  2. Trackback: Learning styles- think again

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