Tom Bennett speaks to… Professor Daniel Willingham

Professor Daniel Willingham is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to primary/secondary education.

He writes the ‘Ask the Cognitive Scientist’ column for American Educator magazine and is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, When Can You Trust The Experts?, Raising Kids Who Read and The Reading Mind. His writing on education has appeared in 16 languages.

​In 2017 he was appointed by President Obama to serve as a Member of the National Board for Education Sciences.

Written by one of the most important figures in the recent international explosion of interest in evidence-informed education, Professor Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? is a rarity in its field – a book about research that is accessible to teachers but doesn’t talk down to them. It also deservedly and routinely hovers around the top spot in sales charts for educational training books, even though it first came out in 2010. We were fortunate enough to speak to Professor Willingham in February 2018 about his thoughts on learning, growth mindset, teacher training, learning styles…and The Karate Kid.

Tom Bennett: One thing I’m often told by teachers is ‘I’d like to know more about using evidence from psychology in the classroom, but I don’t have enough time.’ What are the key messages from Why Don’t Students Like School?

Professor Daniel Willingham: That there is useful information coming from science that will complement your knowledge that you’ve gained teaching. And that there are many things IT can’t help with, and some things people claim science can help with that I don’t think it can. There are a small number of things we know something about and when we do, that’s useful, and that’s worth sharing. And that’s the overarching point of the book. Each of the chapters is essentially one such nugget. So, these are the things I think it’s worth teachers knowing, coming from cognitive science. And this is a point further elaborated in the book that came after (When Can You Trust The Experts?, 2012, Jossey-Bass): even when there’s something that scientists know with confidence that teachers should know, the classroom application is still tricky. It certainly doesn’t mean scientists can tell teachers, ‘Well that means you ought to be doing this.’ It means that any conclusions that are drawn need to be tentative and they need to be thoughtful and it needs to be run through the filter of what teachers know about their classroom, their practice, and other aspects of the context within which they teach.

TB: Some people say there’s a danger evidence can disempower teachers, i.e., ‘You MUST teach this way.’

DW: I absolutely agree, and it’s a big part of why I wrote WCYTTE. I was encountering so many frustrated teachers because research evidence was being used the way you described. I usually describe it as a cudgel used by administrators to say ‘You need to be doing this because all the research evidence supports it.’ The analogy I drew from in the book is that people often think of the relationship between research and practice in education as being quite similar to medicine. And in medicine we see it as quite prescriptive – there are right ways and wrong ways to treat people for particular diseases and if you don’t use the right way you’re guilty of malpractice. My friends who are physicians tell me that’s actually less the case than you think and of course you can do terrible things and be guilty of malpractice but usually there’s usually a little more slop in it than you might think – and I always think to myself ‘You ought to see my practice!’

That said, I think there are instances of things we know for particular aspects of education that, if you don’t respect that principle then you’re probably going to have a pretty hard time achieving your stated goal. I called these boundary conditions and the analogy I drew was not with medicine but with architecture. If you’re building a skyscraper, there are principles of physics you’re just going to need to respect, principles of science that if you don’t, your building is going to fall down. Likewise, there are a few principles that you need to respect in teaching; so one, for example, is practice. If you think that someone is going to reach proficiency in a task without practising, I don’t see how that’s possible. But the point of the analogy with architecture is that the principles of physics don’t tell you how to build the skyscraper or what it needs to look like. That’s why I call them boundary conditions. But within the boundaries there are enormous variations that are possible. But you do have to be aware of and respect those boundaries to reach your goal.

TB: What’s the most important takeaway for teacher training?

DW: The principle that memory is the residue of thought. Everybody appreciates that without attention there is no learning. And if children aren’t paying attention then they’re not going to learn anything from the lesson. And the idea is that ‘memory really depends on what you think about’ is so obvious once it’s articulated, but it’s something that a lot of people hadn’t thought about, and I think it is as important as the idea that ‘without attention there is no learning’ for more or less the same reason. Whatever children are thinking about is essentially what they’re paying attention to and that’s what they’re going to remember.

TB: Your second book, WCYTTE – what inspired that?

DW: The driving point behind that was frustration on the part of teachers being asked to change classroom practice in the name of research – research that they weren’t confident was really as solid as was being presented to them. But at the same time they didn’t feel they were in a position to evaluate – much less challenge – the research so I tried to write a book that would help someone who was not a researcher evaluate research.

TB: Do you think teachers are interested in challenging their paradigms?

DW: I think it’s a very individual thing. It’s not why you get into the field. We do have a lot of data on this. Most teachers become teachers because they like children and because they want to make a difference in the world. So, struggling with your assistant principal over your practice is not something that you really foresaw doing when you got into the field. So, it’s not something you relish. That might be behind why WCYTTE was not a huge success…you don’t really want to have to work on it, you’d much rather the problem went away. And the truth of it is that in many cases it does. The assistant principal moves on; they move on to another job or find something else.

TB: On that note, without a background in psychology, how can teachers know what ideas they should trust?

DW: That’s a very difficult problem. I wrote this book with the idea that I didn’t think it would be useful to write a one-book short course on how to be a researcher. That seemed hopeless to me. So, I tried to write something that was a bit of a cheat, where you’re not exactly evaluating the research but you’re doing things that are associated with high-quality research versus bad research. So yeah, I think it’s an enormously difficult problem. And of course, the great irony is that what would be really interesting and persuasive to do would be to have 100 teachers read my book and have 100 teachers read some other book and then give them all problems, actually put my money where my mouth is and do some research on my methods [laughs]. I didn’t do that and don’t intend to.

TB: In The Science of Learning for Deans for Impact [an influential summary of useful cognitive psychology applied to the classroom, co-designed by Professor Willingham], we read the idea that subject areas each have some set of facts that, if committed to memory, aids problem solving. Can you expand?

DW: In that context we were talking about knowledge of that subject. We were saying, domain by domain, there are different sets of facts, and you need to know them in different ways. Maths offers a great example; maths facts really ought to be known to a great level of automaticity, but other types of information don’t need to be learned to automaticity.

TB: In the UK there is currently a long debate about need for children to memorise multiplication tables, and a variety of arguments against it. ‘Why up to 12? We have calculators. It’s harmful/kills their love of mathematics…’ etc.

DW: I find [this] very puzzling. There’s an enormous amount of research indicating that students that don’t memorise maths facts have a much harder time with mathematics further down the line. That work started in the ’60s and ’70s, and by the time the US National Maths Panel issued its report in 2008 there was really a great deal of evidence that they were able to draw on, so I find that report very useful, and I hope it’s part of the debate in the UK. I don’t think there’s much question that kids succeed in mathematics at a much higher rate if they memorise maths facts as part of the curriculum. In terms of it being boring: it certainly has the potential to be boring and I think that making it interesting and fun is challenging because it’s so repetitive – doing things to the point of automaticity is going to be repetitive. So yeah, that requires ingenuity and creativity on the part of the teachers. It doesn’t strike me as inevitable that it’s going to be a miserable experience and it’s going to kill the love of mathematics. I think many teachers would know better than I would how you make this sort of thing more fun and interesting.

TB: I call this the Mr Miyagi Karate Kid Principle: wax on, wax off…

DW: Although the Karate Kid was pretty miserable; I don’t know that I would want to use that as my model. ‘Paint the fence.’ [laughs]

TB: I’m sure karate instructors everywhere rarely use any other technique. Moving on. There’s an argument that getting children to sit tests is harmful to them. Do you have any comment?

DW: Yeah – I would say that if there’s a child that is enormously anxious about a test then two things immediately come to my mind. One is: what has this child heard about this test? What has someone said to the child about the consequences of their performance on this test, and is that promoting this anxiety? And the second thing is that if the answer to the first question is ‘Not much, we just said we’re all going to practise some maths problems, and on Friday we all want you to do your best,’ whatever, when it’s all been pretty low key and the child is still anxious, then someone needs to talk to that child and find out why they’re still so anxious about something that none of the other children are anxious about. This to me is like boredom practising times tables – tests certainly have the potential to create anxiety, but it’s not inevitable.

TB: Some teachers argue learning about grit, growth mindset etc. are more important than learning about memory. Why is understanding about memory more important as a part of a teacher’s mental model?

DW: Sure. First I would point out that focusing on grit strikes me as something that has the potential to go wrong. In more than one way, but I’ll focus on one way. One of the important problems is that people remember the determination parts about grit but they forget the passion parts about grit. When people talk about focusing on grit, I actually think it’s a wonderful idea in classrooms, but I also want to remind them you don’t get to pick what the child is gritty about. This is supposed to be about a long-term goal that the child is supposed to be passionate about. You’re not going to make every child gritty about some academic concept. Now, the idea of some children going to a school where the faculty encouraged them to figure out what they’re really passionate about and to encourage that – I love that idea. But if my child says I feel gritty about ants, or ballet, or the New York Yankees, I want my school to be equally encouraging about all of that and not say ‘No, what you’re really supposed to be gritty about is maths’. That’s counter to what grit is all about.

TB: Are you suggesting it’s not transferable?

DW: Oh of course it’s not. It’s central to the idea that it’s not transferable. I think growth mindset is another idea that is a wonderful idea and ought to be encouraged, but it’s something that can be over sold and people can over rely on. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – Carol Dweck wrote an op-ed in Education Week about a year ago saying ‘Everyone is screwing this up, everyone’s missing the point about growth mindset, and getting it wrong in schools’. So you do want to make sure that you’re talking to children about growth mindset in the way that there’s really some research indicating it’s a useful way to talk about it. And I think Carol’s interpretation of ways that it can go wrong is very consistent with her theories and other theories of motivation. So to get back to your question ‘Why teach children about memory, couldn’t you just teach them about growth mindset?’… Growth mindset is of course about getting kids to take responsibility and to feel capable in terms of learning and teaching themselves things, and the reason to teach them about memory is, once they’ve got the motivation to do that it will make achieving that much easier. If you know how your memory works then you can get things into memory and use your memory much more efficiently.

I think growth mindset is a wonderful idea, but it’s something that can be over sold and people can over rely on.

TB: Whenever I speak to teachers at researchED about memory, many teachers say to me ‘Why didn’t we learn about this in teacher training?’ It’s a good question. Back to reading, another contested and controversial field. What are your key messages about how teachers should be teaching children to read?

DW: I just published a book, The Reading Mind, but it’s not really a book about teaching reading. It’s a book about what’s happening in the mind of someone who knows how to read. And I specifically didn’t write a book about how to teach reading. It’s a different and very complex literature. And that was a task I didn’t want to tackle. I will say that during our conversation, early on I said there were certain principles that if you didn’t respect them, you were probably going to have a very hard time. We keep bumping up against them in the conversation. One of them is ‘If you don’t teach children maths facts it’s going to be a whole lot harder to teach them mathematics’. And another one is ‘For at least some children, teaching what’s usually called phonics is really important for reading.’ There are some kids where explicit instruction probably helps a little bit, but they’ve got so many other things cognitively in place that with minimal assistance in the phonics realm they’re going to be just fine, and then there are other kids where phonics instruction is enormously important.

TB: What is your next book going to be about?

DW: My next book is going to be about self-regulated learning. It’s focused on the idea that when children first arrive in school, our expectation that they can take any responsibility for their learning is zero. And obviously appropriately so. If a pre-schooler doesn’t learn anything we don’t blame the pre-schooler, we blame the teacher, not setting up good circumstances where the child can learn something. By the time children are finishing school at age 18 or so our expectations are very high, and we expect that we can give them complex texts and they will know how to read those texts, and they will be resourceful if they find those texts confusing, and they will know how to study for an examination. And most American kids have had no instruction in how to do those things. And instead they have figured out on their own, they have come up with their own strategies.

And how to commit things to memory, how to read a difficult text. So that’s what this book is about. We know that there are a number of studies of college students in the US about how they do these tasks, and we find that they come up with strategies on their own, but these strategies are usually not very effective.

TB: What are your thoughts on cognitive load theory?

DW: I think CLT is quite useful, and consistent with a lot of data.

TB: Short and sweet.

DW: It’s a quite specific theory and it generates a lot of predications and there’s quite a lot of research literature that’s grown up around it, and so it for that reason it’s complex to get into it, and for that reason… I think it’s quite a successful theory.

TB: I know you’ve been doing some work on teacher training recently. Can you tell me anything about that?

DW: Yes I’ve got a couple of articles on this. It’s really one idea. The central question and idea is ‘Why have I had any success doing what I’ve been doing for the last 10 or 15 years?’ That was very much my reaction in one article that I hope is going to appear in Education Week – an open access journal – in the near future. I open this article with my experience of the very first time I spoke to teachers when I was still strictly a memory researcher, I had never done anything with education. And I was invited to give a talk to 500 teachers. And I said ‘This is a terrible idea, I don’t know anything about classrooms.’ They said, ‘We get that; we just want you to talk about cognitive psychology. We think our teachers would be interested,’ so I rashly agreed to do this. And six months later, it was just about time for me to give the talk – I was about two weeks out – and I panicked and I realised ‘what in the world am I going to say to teachers about cognitive psychology that they don’t already know?’ I literally just walked in from the introductory cog course that I teach at college to sophomores and I was guessing that some of it was relevant to what they wanted to know about, but I was utterly certain I was going to be telling them things they already knew. To my astonishment they liked it. They didn’t know it and they thought it was interesting. So that’s the question: how is it possible that teachers don’t know the principles of how people think? That’s something I teach in the very first course in that subject if you study cognitive psychology at college. In the paper I offer some answers to why I think this is happening. I think teachers actually are introduced to that topic – I can’t speak for the UK, but in the States, I think they are exposed to that content, but they are also exposed to a lot of other content of very low utility.

[nb: if you’re interested in hearing Professor Willingham’s thoughts on this, go to soundcloud.com/voiced-radio/researched-ontario-keynote-dan-willingham and hear his keynote speech from researchED Ontario, April 14th 2018]

TB: OK, and finally, back to a topic that seems to exemplify the challenges facing us when we try to build an evidence-informed education system. Despite all the evidence against it, why does belief in learning styles endure?

DW: I think learning styles have reached the status where people wouldn’t think to question it. There’s a whole lot of things I believe for which I do not know the evidence; I just assume. The usual example I use is atomic theory. How do you know there really are atoms? I don’t know – I would be like, ‘They figured that out, right?’ I couldn’t tell you what the evidence is – everybody knows that the atomic theory is right. I think learning styles has actually reached that status, where people just assume that it’s right. And your question is more broad than that – other beliefs also lack a research basis, but they’re not as pervasive as learning styles. I’m not sure. I think there are a couple of reasons. One is there really isn’t any authority in education the way there are in some other fields. Usually authorities are generated by practitioners. So, you get something like the American Medical Association, which is an organisation of practitioners and carries a lot of authority in terms of evaluation of health practices. If something new comes out, newspapers will call representatives of the AMA and ask what they think of it. There’s not anything similar in education. And I think that’s really a shame, it ought to be practitioner-led, this effort to cleanse the field of bad practice. And this one of the reasons I was so excited by researchED and was happy to support it in all ways that I can. It strikes me as serving a need that I’ve seen, and just doing a wonderful job.

To read more by Daniel Willingham, visit www.danielwillingham.com, where you will find  many of his most popular articles for free. His ‘Ask the Cognitive Scientist’ column regularly appears in the journal American Educator.

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