01 August 2014

On "Why Don't Students Like School?" (Willingham)

You may have come across Dan Willingham. He features regularly in the posts of several education bloggers who crop up frequently in my Items to Share on Mondays, and his crystal-clear and devastating demolition of the VAK reading styles nonsense has been viewed almost 235,000 times on YouTube. But his central published work in this area is;

Willingham D T (2009) 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

The plain language of the title sets the tone for a refreshingly jargon-free book aimed at the general interested reader, principally parents and teachers, whom he addresses directly. So each chapter heading is a question, expanded upon in the opening paragraph, and followed by an answer. Selected sources and references are available as end-notes to each chapter (under the useful heading of “less technical” and “more technical”, but don't interrupt the flow. There are copious graphics and photographs (perhaps too many of those, some of debatable relevance) and box-outs which summarise major points. All this is the familiar apparatus of the text-book, but the book as a whole  does not give that impression. On the contrary, it reads like the transcript of an animated (albeit one-sided) conversation.

In other words, within the confines of the book format, Willingham can practise what he preaches. But what is that?

In the introduction, he says that the book;
“began as a list of nine principles that are so fundamental to the mind's operation that they do not change as circumstances change. They are as true in the classroom as they are in the laboratory and therefore can be reliably applied to classroom situations.” (p.2)
And that is what it is; an exploration of the nine principles. (from pp. 210-211)

Cognitive Principle

Required Knowledge about Students

Most Important Classroom Implication
1 People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers What is just beyond what my students know and can do? Think of to-be-learned material as answers, and take the time necessary to explain to students the questions.
2 Factual knowledge precedes skill. What do my students know? It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic.
3 Memory is the residue of thought. What will students think during this session? The best barometer for every lesson plan is “Of what will it make students think?”
4 We understand new things in the context of things we already know. What do students already know that will be a toehold on understanding this new material? Always make deep knowledge your goal, spoken or unspoken but recognize that shallow knowledge will come first.
5 Proficiency requires practice How can I get students to practice without boredom? Think carefully about which material students need at their fingertips, and practice it over time.
6 Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. What is the difference between my students and an expert? Strive for deep understanding in your students, not the creation of new knowledge.
7 Children (and adults*) are more alike than different in terms of learning Knowledge of students' learning styles is not necessary Think of lesson content, not student differences, driving decisions about how you teach.
8 Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. What do my students believe about intelligence? Always talk about successes and failures in terms of effort, not ability.
9 Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practised in order to be improved. What aspects of my teaching work well for my students, and what parts need improvement? Improvement needs more than experience; it also requires constant effort and feedback.

* my addition.

Willingham is not claiming novelty for any of these ideas—in fact directly the opposite. Many readers will find familiar references and names (although Ausubel does not appear to get a mention in ch.4—this does not pretend to provide a comprehensive survey of the work in the field).

The odd thing is that all this does not add up to an answer to the question in the title, but who cares? It's an excellent intorduction. This is not likely to be available at your local indy bookshop, so for once I'll post the Amazon link.


  1. Personally I have been less than impressed with Willingham, statements such as "the brain was not designed to think" so we spend most of our time avoiding thinking are not coherent arguments.
    Also factual knowledge proceeding skill is highly dubious. From a developmental and philosophical point of view a skill must come first, that brings in knowledge that is then prerequisite for the next skill. We are born with only reflex skills and a use or lose it mechanism - we start with skills to bring in knowledge. I believe that content does matter and has to be relevant but the real learning is making the implicit skills explicit to the student. Feuerstein proved how far you can get without any content. Michael Shayer backed this up with CASE and CAME showing, that with well thought out content to match the skills training, you can get massive leaps in learning.

    Although Willingham has some good ideas, he is ultimately flawed in his philosophy. He seems to be trying to find some sort of neo-traditional outlook to the outdated traditional vs progressive argument of education.

  2. I just finished reading it. I am not impressed for lots of reasons. What I liked most about the book is in the beginning of each chapter he explained the basic cognitive model followed by a discussion about misconception on that particular topic. Most interestingly each chapter includes a segment dedicated to classroom implication .This book is easy to read and entertaining. Willingham recreated the complex neuroscience stuff so easily through short stories and examples. This book humanizes learners and make sure as educators we understand diverse perspective of how learning occurs. Another point which was recurring throughout the book is that we should limit our expectations from students. Another theme from this book emerged is critical thinking and how important it is to teach students to analyze, evaluate and re-create information.
    Although this book serves as a good source of information about learning, I still feel the book was oversimplified. This book accepted the fact that environment plays equally important role in learning but did not play enough time on that. As literacy educator I would have been happier if this book explained detail mechanism of how reading and writing takes place from cognitive aspect. Specially there was not even a paragraph dedicated to writing issues. Also my impression after reading this book was it is very good resource for elementary or middle school. When students go through the phase of higher cognitive level, it might not be as great source as it could be for lower grades. Moreover this book did not look at school from a holistic point of view, knowing a lot of stuff about students does not make school a better experience. There are other factors are involved like stake holders, administration, government policy etc other than teachers.
    I would certainly re-visit this book even if I am teaching at college level to recreate certain contexts even though the book is very good for elementary and middle school teacher. This book provides us great deal on how we learn and what teachers don’t know about students in order to make learning fun at school. I will consider this book when I need some complex information in a simplified way, but I do not think this book is a great resource for college level teaching.


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