Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Don't Students Like School (A review of Willinham's fantastic new book)

A new book by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has come out entitled Why Don't Students LIke School? I am generally skeptical of books claiming to take the latest brain/mind research and apply it to education primarily because of the "brain based ways of learning" fad promulgated by motivational speaker Eric Jensen (and preached unquestionably in professional developments). I picked this kone up, though, primarily due to a blurb on the back of the book by education theorist ED Hirsch, who I very strongly admire. Surely, any book Hirsch reccomends is at least worth a shot.

I was right. This book is fabulous in its 'back to basics' approach. Willingham's main point seems to be that the best way to increase a child's ability is repitition, repitition, repitition. By increasing the number of facts a child can recall automatically, one increases the amount of 'free space' a child has available to think. [ex.: (3+4) - (2-1) is a lot easier when one can recall the math facts automatically.]

Anyway, I strongly, strongly reccomend this book to all concerned with education theory. I hope this book gets used within the schools, but suspect that Jensen will be the continued drug of choice, as his theory manages, unlike Willinham's, to confirm all the constructivist impulses that educators have been in love with for the last 20 years.


If you are a teacher, like myself, you have doubtless been inundated by advice about teaching to multiple intelligences, active (rather than passive) learning, teaching students to think rather than memorize facts, etc. If so, then you can't afford to pass up this book, which will provide a very helpful guide as to why some of these well-intentioned ideas are wrong, and what it means for you as a teacher.

Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? is a book applying findings of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Sound a lot like Eric Jensen and his wildly popular book Teaching With the Brain in Mind? Well, unlike Jensen - who educators hear a lot about - Willingham is a PhD in cognitive psychology (while Jensen, who has a bachelors in English, is "working towards" a PhD from an online university, while making his real living as a motivational speaker). Long and short: Willingham is the real deal and I move to suggest that this book infinitely deserves more popularity amongst educators than anything Jensen has written.

Willingham's basic theme is that, despite everything you've heard, nothing works to increase student ability like factual learning and practice. In fact, one of his first ideas is to point out that what seperates the excellent student (or adult) from those performing less well is their ability to recall facts. The more facts you know about your subject, the more you can understand your subject because of significantly less energy spent on fact recall or retention. With facts learned to automaticity, more time can be spent on higher-order concept learning, and once that becomes automatic....etc.

While that may sound mundane, think of how many times you as a teacher have heard the idea of "rote memorization" and "regurgitation of fact" denegrated. Of course, Willingham is not advocating the strawman position that teachers do nothing but drill, drill, drill and enforce memorization of text passages. (No one actually holds that position!) What he reminds us, though, is that the critical thinking we hear so much about teaching our kids simply CANNOT happen without giving kids the requisite background info that must be employed to think critically. (One cannot critically reflect on whether the revolutionary war was justified without some big factual understanding of Colonial American and Empirial Britian, for example.)

Another big idea in educaiton that Willingham works to dispel is the idea that we all have different learning styles - auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Cognitive science, in fact, has shown the opposite: with minor variation, we all learn very similarly. While I may have a better memory for visual phemonena than you (who may be better at remembering sounds), we remember IDEAS not through the media in which they were delivered, but by...thinking about them. When memorizing words and definitions, we are not being asked to memorize sounds or visuals, but ideas, and the fact that I am an auditory or visual learner does nothing to predict what presentation method will help me memorize the best. (The amount I studied, of course, will.)

I don't want to give the impression that Willingham's book is about bashing education icons and maxims. It is not It is a book for teachers designed to bring up ideas we may not have thought about, and to suggest how to apply these ideas to our classrooms. Each chapter is focused around a question ("Is Drilling Worth It?" "Why is it So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?") and gives a detailed, but engaging, answer. At the end of each chapter, the author makes several concrete suggestions for how the answer can shape how we teach as well as reccomendations for further readings.

All in all, this is one of the single best education books I have read, and cannot wait to share it with fellow educators. As mentioned, I sincerely hope that this book becomes as widely devoured as those by Eric Jensen and Howard Gardner. Willingham offers a valuable and very constructive counterpoint, especially to Jensen's "brain based ways of learning."


Anyone looking for more can visit Willingham's website, where there are plenty of good articles and videos.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    I just read about Willingham's book through my wife's AFT magazine (I'm an NEA member myself). Anyway, I'm also a special educator (self-contained high school class in Rhode Island).
    Mark Williams