Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham


Reviewed by: Lauren Applebaum, the Associate Dean of the Fingerhut School of Education in American Jewish University's Graduate Center for Education.

       Lauren Applebaum ImageAnyone who is engaged in the process of teaching and learning in formal settings - as a teacher, as a student, or as a parent - knows that education is a complicated, messy endeavor.  Those engaged in trying to make school work better for children try to learn from as many resources as possible.  Daniel T. Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School attempts to use insights from cognitive science research to shed some light on teaching and learning.  As he says, "We all read stories in the newspaper about research breakthroughs in learning or problem solving, but it is not clear how each latest advance is supposed to change what a teacher does on Monday morning." This book is Willingham's attempt to make those connections clear for teachers, and to help others think about policy arguments around educational philosophy and practice.  He explains how students' minds work and how this knowledge can lead to better teaching and learning.

       The book is organized around nine "principles" of how the mind learns.   Willingham selected these principles because they are significant (they don't change regardless of setting), they are supported by many credible research studies, and they have the potential to significantly impact student learning.

          In presenting the principles, Willingham demonstrates one of his own principles in order to make the readers' experience of the book more effective.  He suggests that to deepen interest and improve learning about any given topic, it is important to develop the questions rather than just the answers.  Thus, each chapter is organized according to a question about learning. Some of his questions are of more interest to teachers specifically (such as a chapter on the effectiveness of drilling and practice), while others may be appreciated by a larger audience, particularly of parents interested in how their children think and those who enjoy reflecting on their own learning experiences. Other questions/principles include: "Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?" and "Why do students remember everything that's on television and forget everything I say?"

          To begin, Willingham offers a basic explanation for how thinking works. People are naturally curious, he argues, but not naturally good thinkers, so the conditions have to be right for good thinking.  The book is filled with examples from daily life illustrating how the mind works.  In explaining working memory vs. long term memory, he talks about why travel is tiring (because we need to make so many decisions consciously rather than relying on things we already know).  The scientific explanations are enlivened with images and photographs, often humorous. In a book about brain science and education, the engaging tone offers accessibility to a general audience.  In each chapter, Willingham offers a brief bibliography with less technical and more technical suggestions for further reading on each topic.

       The book's weaker passages are when Willingham moves out of his own core competency area of explaining how the brain works, offering accessible summaries of research, and trying to explain why some intuitive or commonly accepted educational theories may not be effective.  In an effort to show how powerful his principles are, he seems to occasionally overreach without providing sufficient follow-up or explanation.  For example, at the end of a lengthy description of why background knowledge (concepts, definitions, facts, procedures) is essential for future learning, he casually mentions that books, magazines, and newspapers are the best place to develop background knowledge, and television and social networking sites are unhelpful.  He claims that scientists verify this, but unlike other claims which are supported with research, he doesn't explain why or provide studies. Without offering reasons for his comment and other statements in support of traditional practice, he comes off as curmudgeonly.

       More troubling are his attempts to weave in politics.  When he dips his toe into large-scale policy arguments (linking a discussion of learning background facts to the backlash about standardized testing, for example), he offers vague suggestions or dismisses real and legitimate concerns quickly.  In the same section on background knowledge, he explains that even if we are concerned that most background information referenced in newspapers has been created by what he himself calls "dead white males," that's what's important, period.

       In perhaps the most controversial and interesting chapter in the book, "Should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?" Willingham takes on the theory of multiple intelligences (and related theories about learning styles). This chapter has received much of the attention about the book, as it takes on a cherished set of beliefs that have been incorporated into general discourse about schools.  Children bring different strengths and preferences to school, and they should be honored as individuals and each helped to achieve great potential.  Willingham argues that though these beliefs themselves are true, matching instruction to learning styles is not supported by scientific evidence.

       He claims that scientists have not determined that there are "categorically different types of learners," and parses out the difference between abilities (our capacity to learn or do something) and our styles (the tendency to think in a certain way).  He discusses Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences as the foremost cultural example of different learning styles, and correctly notes that Gardner himself does not support many of the claims now associated with it.  Willingham offers the example of a misguided teaching strategy of teaching about commas by looking for objects in the woods shaped like a comma, writing songs about commas, placing bodies into sentence shapes with commas, etc.

       Interestingly, at the end of this chapter Willingham admits that he feels like a grinch.  He suggests that though science doesn't have much to say conclusively about differentiation, in this case it may be that "craft knowledge trumps science."  Sometimes the wisdom of teaching practice is more valuable than science when a teacher is faced with a decision about how to reach or teach a particular child.

       Throughout the book, Willingham refers to what he calls "Bubbe psychology" - principles or ideas that your grandmother would know.  Near the end, he asks, rhetorically, if a good and sensitive educator (or her grandmother) already knows to pay attention to her students, "can cognitive science do no better than that?"  His answer is that cognitive science can "offer elaboration that puts flesh on the bare-bones slogan." Education is too complicated to be reduced to maxims or to policy ideas produced by cognitive scientists, subject matter specialists, politicians, or even experienced teachers themselves.  Taking some insights from cognitive science into consideration for those who think about teaching and learning can only help give a richer perspective on important decisions.  In this way, Why Don't Students Like School? can offer an important voice to the discussion.