Published in 2010, Professor Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? set out to describe as simply as possible – but no simpler – the main lessons that cognitive psychology could teach us about memory, learning, focus, motivation and a host of other topics vital to education. In doing so, it helped catalyse a revival in the interest of evidence-informed education that is still blowing up around the world. Consultant and former headteacher Tom Sherrington tells us why it turned the way he taught and led teaching upside down.
It’s incredible to consider that, as teachers, we’re only recently beginning to understand the processes we muddle through every day. Thankfully, help is at hand. Way up high on my list of ‘books every teacher should read’ is Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham. Packed with insights, it’s a masterpiece of communication, making the complex world of cognitive science accessible
Written in 2009, the book continues to be highly influential. My recent re-reading made me realise just how many ideas I’ve encountered in the last few years are covered in the book – from his sound debunking of learning styles to his exploration of knowledge as the foundation of skills and the famous line ‘memory is the residue of thought’. Of course, Willingham is not alone in his field but, without question, he is one of its best communicators and we owe him a great deal for his ability to penetrate the wall of institutional inertia and edu-dogma with evidence and wisdom.
My favourite chapter in Why Don’t Students Like School? is ‘Why do students forget everything I say?’ This frustration resonates widely with teachers I talk to. Willingham offers advice that he suggests ‘may represent the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers’: Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about. Superficially this may sound blindingly obvious but actually it requires a great deal of thought.
Take an example – learning about thermal decomposition in chemistry. A teacher might reasonably think it useful – as well as memorable – to explore this by engaging in a practical experiment. If you heat copper carbonate, a green powder, it becomes copper oxide, a black powder, plus invisible carbon dioxide. However, if you consider what students think about whilst doing an experiment, largely it is the business of assembling apparatus and then the process of examining the original green stuff that turns into black stuff. Most of the thinking is at a macro human scale, not about atoms, formulae, chemical bonds or even the terminology. They will form valuable memories about doing experiments and some general ideas about chemical change – but not necessarily that copper carbonate decomposes to copper oxide or the related formula.
Willingham acknowledges how hard it is to build abstract understanding while also giving very clear guidance as to where to focus our energies.
If you want students to learn this reaction in detail – i.e., to retain the knowledge in long-term memory – they must spend time thinking about the words and their semantic meaning; if you want them to develop a mental model of atoms being rearranged, they need to spend time thinking about a representation of the model you want them to learn.
That’s my example, but one that Willingham cites is the use of PowerPoint. If you ask a class to present their findings from research on the Amazon rainforest, for example, via PowerPoint, they will need to spend time thinking about its features – fonts, graphics, animation tools and so on, especially if those skills are recently acquired. This is time they are not spending thinking about features of the Amazon rainforest. In the long term, they may retain more knowledge of the PowerPoint features than the key aspects of the Amazon because of the focus of their thinking. Memory is the residue of thought – so make students do things that give them no choice but to think about the ideas you want them to learn.
This powerful advice feeds into various other considerations. Willingham suggests teachers explicitly construct learning so that students think about what new words mean, rating them or ranking them; he recommends using ideas that create conflicts to resolve or using narrative structures that place ideas in meaningful sequences. At the same time, ‘attention grabbers’ and discovery learning need careful consideration because unless they provide immediate feedback that the subject is being thought about in the right way, there’s a big risk that students think about the wrong things; they will remember things but not what you actually intended.
Another favourite chapter is ‘Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?’ The key piece of advice is to make deep knowledge the spoken and unspoken emphasis. This means avoiding giving the impression that learning some superficial facts is enough; there are always underlying models and concepts. It means making explicit comparisons between connected ideas such as literary themes or techniques in different poems, building up students’ knowledge of different examples of abstract ideas, but not just learning each example at a surface level.
I love the way Willingham acknowledges how hard it is to build abstract understanding while also giving very clear guidance as to where to focus our energies. That sense of being grounded in teachers’ realities helps him to communicate his thoughts. Helpfully, Willingham devotes some of his thinking to the nature of teachers’ professional learning. His main advice should be no surprise: teaching, like any cognitive skill, must be practised to be improved. This needs experience – but that’s not enough; it also requires conscious effort and feedback. ‘Education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education.’ Amen!
Professor Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? is available to buy on Amazon, published by Jossey-Bass ISBN 047059196X
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