Why Don’t Students Like School? (Book Review)

About the Book

Willingham’s goal for this book is explain how findings from cognitive science can be used to explain how learning works. Topics include memory, a review of learning style theory (partly to debunk it), and the importance of understanding expert vs. novice thinking.

ISBN and Chapter Info

Willingham, Daniel T. (2010) Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
ISBN 10: 047059196X

The table of contents of the book is:

  • Chapter 1 Why Don’t Students Like School?
  • Chapter 2 How Can I Teach Students the Skills They Need When Standardized Tests Require Only Facts?
  • Chapter 3 Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?
  • Chapter 4 Why Is It So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?
  • Chapter 5 Is Drilling Worth It?
  • Chapter 6 What’s the Secret to Getting Students to Think Like Real Scientists, Mathematicians, and Historians?
  • Chapter 7 How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?
  • Chapter 8 How Can I Help Slow Learners?
  • Chapter 9 What About My Mind?

My Takeaways

In many ways Willingham’s outlook on learning is very traditional. For instance, he actually recommends a return to an emphasisis on some memorization and drills for novice learners as well as a focus on content as well as skills. He also definitively focuses on an individual mind rather than a mind in a social or cultural setting. I have to confess that this point of view agrees with both my sensibilities as a linguist and a lot of what I observe in the classroom. But if I were a strict constructivist, I might be a little frustrated. And yet, I believe that some insights of learning within a social context can be incorporated into Willingham’s insights.

Memory and Learning

A major focus of this book is the role of memory in learning. At the most basic level, learning represents a change in a person’s long term memory. But how does this change come to pass? According to Willingham, one key aspect is that some sort of perceptual signal (written or spoken text, a visual, a motion, smell or non-text audio signal) must be analyzed within working memory and transformed into a part of long term memory. Part of this transformation usually involves establishing a connection between previously existing memories and often between elements in the new memory cluster.

Willingham notes that researchers have long known that there are limitations in short term memory (hence we speak of 7-min video attention spans or the 7±2 memory limits). However, there are ways to maximize short term memory including chunking and sufficient practice to automate enough processes to free up additional memory. I would also argue that connecting elements into a narrative is another strategy that instructors use.

I find the discussion of memory particularly valuable because Willingham provides a concrete definition of what learning entail in the brain and therefore the cognitive task that must be accomplished in instruction. I have always found it frustrating that more pedagogical articles do not define learning at this level, instead treating the mechanics of learning as some sort of "low-level" almost magical process. Although not all learning theory need focus on memory, I do think it is important to remember that it is a factor of learning that should be investigated.

Expert vs. Novice Minds

A point that I felt was very important was that novice minds differ greatly from expert minds. In particular, experts are better able to see abstract patterns because they have more experience processing a certain type of data. In addition, experts have in many cases automated lower level tasks leaving more cognitive capacity open to higher order congitive tasks.

One approach to helping students achieve expert mastery has been to introduce expert methods of learning new content. However, Willingham argues that novice minds may not actually be ready for expert methods in the beginning and actually need alternate forms of presentation.

A particularly interesting example can be seen in an anlysis of reading. Expert readers familiar with a large set of vocabulary can quickly scan a page of text and process entire words. This has led to the insight that expert reading proficiency requires whole word recognition (vs. sounding words out aka "phonics"). However, novice readers may actually NEED to go through through a "sounding out" phase before they gain enough proficiency to read in the whole word method. An expert English reader may re-encounter this when a new language is learned and becomes a novice reader again. Phonics becomes important again, particularly if a new script is being learned.

I think Willingham’s point is that scaffolding is more important that modern instructional theory may realize. While everyone agrees that using higher order analytic skills is important, Willingham argues that they cannot be mastered without mastering the lower-level skills first. This pattern can be found in many other areas such as motor development and language acquistion. When children learn their first language, they typically go through a series of stages in sequence before becoming master native speakers. Similarly, traditional mathematical instruction is sequenced so that students learn addition and subtraction before multiplication and division, algebra before calculus and so forth.

Practice and Motivation to Practice

One tenet that Willingham emphasizes repeatedly is the importance of practice in mastering a skill with memorization being an important component. For instance, some argue that a child may not need to memorize a multiplication table – only understand how to apply it. Willingam would argue that multiplication is so integral to other mathematical operations that NOT memorizing part of a multiplication table slows down a student when attempting a more complex operation involving multiplication (e.g. many algebraic equations).

The effort used to look up or manually calculate a multiplication could be used to for additional cognitive processing IF the times table has already been memorized sufficiently. Memorizing the multiplication table also allows an individual to spot a pattern in numeric data tha might not otherwise be obvious.

On the other hand, Willingham points out that "curiosity is fragile" and practice can be boring. The eternal challenge for instructors has been to persuade reluctant learners to practice a skill they may not see a need for at the moment. Game mechanics may provide some answers for this or providing "real world" problems. However, not even Willingham has all the answers here.

Getting from Expert to Novice?

A question that has intrigued me and others is how to we help learners transition from novice mental models to expert mental models. I do concur with Willingham that introducing beginning students to expert techniques is often counter-productive because they don’t have the background to utilize them. I also concur that practice (or a bit of "drill and kill") plus required memorization can help students free up additional cognitive capacity needed for higher order analysis. But beyond that Willingam does not connect the dots well.

At a simplistic level, it is possible to teach learners a series of rules used to guide best practice. For instance, educated English speakers learn about standardized spelling, punctuation and academic vocabulary. Unfortunately, learning these rules does not guarantee that a student will become an effective writer, much to the dismay of those grading written assignments. Writers also need to learn about audience, switching between genres and even "voice."

Practice and Acquisition

One insight is that probably learning from experience does matter, but not necessarily identical experiences. The book I previously reviewed, InsideOut: Strategies for Teaching Writing, discusses precicely the need for practice, but also the need to give varied writing assignments. The authors also emphasize the need for writers to critique other authors (including their peers). This is related to the idea of using case studies to show how different principles interact in real-life situations. Critiques also gives learners to troubleshoot which is also an important skill in higher order thinking.

Willingham also notes that it’s important to provide opportunities to practice old skills after they are first taught. For instance, a math class might teach fractions and provide many exercises in which fraction skills are practiced. However, it is important to remind students that fraction skills might be needed in relation with more advanced problems and perhaps provide additional practice in those contexts.

I will say that in some cases, some skills can "emerge" or be "acquired" just from exposing learners to data. For instance, vocabulary can be learned with minimal instruction just by observing how it’s used or with only a short defnition. This is how most slang or colloquialisms are learned, but experienced readers of academic language can learn new academic terms also. I’ve also seen students learn the distinction between different levels of phonetic description just by guiding them through practices involving dialectal differences in English. And I have learned to distinguish between different comic book artists just be reading lots of comics! This type of learning requires the least intervention, but probably the most cogntive architecture to accomplish.


Another technique that Willingham does not discuss much, but I think is important is the narrative, that is packaging an insight in the middle of a story. An example from childhood are Aesop’s fables in which a story (e.g. a hare starts out quickly in a race but soon wears himself out and loses to the tortoise who maintains a slow but steady pace) is used to demostratate a concept ("pace yourself"). But narratives can be used to demonstrate abstract concepts in action or to tie seemingly disconnected facts together. Narratives can provide concrete examples for a novice learner of an abstract concept needed for expert mastery.

For instance, memorizing the names of Henry VIII’s six wives boring. Mentioning that the British Protestant reformation happened in his era adds confusion. Watching him woo and discard successive spouses in a televized drama (or through reading his love letters) is much more memorable. We also get to SEE Henry VIII decide to reject the Pope and embrace Protestant theology in order to facilitate one of his divorces. We also see how the divorces affect the religious leanings of his children/future rulers of England which in turn affects political life of the country. The narrative truly does bring the past to life.

This lesson does not only apply to history, but to any discipline. When I was working on a thermodynamics course, much of the content was a learning and applying a series of equations. However, the instructor had some experience working in power plants and she said that steam above a certain temperature became an invisible gas and that a leak in the pipes could kill plant workers. I now know about the difference between visible low temperature steam as a vapor and high temperature steam as a gas.

In addition to traditional stories, the right graphic or muisc can grab student’s attention in much the same way. As Willingham notes, this is why television is as popular as it is. Instructors may not be able to make all instruction television or even game friendly, but it’s something to always consider.

Learning Style Debunked?

One of the more important chapters to me are the ones evaluating "multiple intelligences" and "learning styles". Both concepts relate to the idea that students come with individual talents and "quirks". The question has been how to cater to these individual differences, and Willingham argues that the differences, particularly for learning styles, may not be as profound as first thought. Although he argues that there are differences, he feels that cultural factors may override "genetic" factors. For instance, he proposes that tall people may become better basketball players because they are encouraged to play the sport, not because they are tall per se.

I would agree that while it is impractical and ultimately counterproductive to create entire lessons geared for different styles, it is worthwhile to consider how to assist students consume content. An extreme example are students with different cognitive issues such as dyslexia where reading text may be difficult. These students benefit immensely from consuming content in alternative formats (e.g. in audio format from a screen reader). Similarly a "poet" in a biology course may learn more by creating a rhyme of key topics, while a visual person in a literature course could benefit from diagramming key events in a novel.

I also wonder if Willingham does underestimate "genetics" to some extent. An interesting case I always think is assuming that people with low academic vocabulary are automatically deficient in verbal ability. In fact a person who can compose either hip hop or country music lyrics is extremely proficient in using words…just not words that are found in the SAT. While I agree that formal education, including recognizing SAT type words, benefits everyone, it is important to understand how a talent may manifest itself in different sociological environments.

Where’s the Social Connection?

One aspect of modern pedagogical theory that Willingham mostly ignores is the "social aspect" of learning. To be honest, I do believe that considering brains individually is important to understanding learning and that placing students in collaborative settings will not always improve learning. After all "teams don’t learn, individuals do. (Kozlowski and DeShon 2001, Developing Adaptive Teams)."

Still one can consider how social interaction with peers can help a student learn within this framework.

  • A person who is not an expert, but a little ahead of someone else may have insights on overcoming novice preconceptions
  • Teaching itself facilitates learning since the instructor is forced to create a "narrative"
  • Larger scale projects may provide opportunities for learning not available in smaller projects
  • If nothing else, team projects help students practive team skills

To Conclude

I admit to appreciating this book for providing evidence that some traditional practices such as memorization, drilling and learning in context can be shown to be relevant in a modern pedagogical framework. But I think the more important lesson is understanding how profoundly different a novice mental model is from an expert mental model. Helping instructors understand their novice learners is a start to improving instruction.

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