Why Don’t Students Like School? – Book Review

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This blog post is the second part in a ongoing series of my reflections on humans think and learn and the implications for the classroom.  Part 1 is on Nobel prize winner (Econ) Psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow Part 3 looks at creativity.  

“Know your audience”

Cognitive Scientist Daniel Willingham has written the book that I have been seeking. Willingham succinctly explains how learning actually works and why students–and teachers–struggle.  He then provides educators with a step by step list of best practices, nine principles of the mind. He dedicates a chapter to explain and elucidate each principle. Each chapter is filled with clear examples and recommendations targeted to classroom teachers.  This post is essentially a fly-by summary and then ends with my round-up of Willingham’s classroom suggestions.  For teachers I simply can not recommend his book any higher, you will want your own reference copy!

Willingham begins his book with an explanation of how the mind works. He presents a very simple model (illustration below).  The mind has a working memory, what we are current exposed to, and a long-term memory, everything we remember from the past.  Working memory takes energy and can only remember so many things, where as long term memory are things we know so well that they don’t take much energy.   Willingham states that thinking occurs when one combines information from the long term memory with new information in the environment.  This is done by the working memory, and then–hopefully–becomes encoded in the long term memory to be easily recalled in the future.1

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Willingham’s conception of the simplest model of learning.  Working Memory is where awareness happens, and Long Term Memory is where factual and procedural knowledge resides.  In my prezi on Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow I made a parallel of Willingham’s model with Kahneman’s intuitive system 1 (long term memory) and deliberate system 2 (focus/attention with working memory). The analogy is not exactly right as they are describing slightly different things but I find it useful as a conceptualization.

For Willingham, successful thinking takes four factors: information in the environment, facts & procedures in long-term memory, and space in working memory.  If any of those are missing than thinking is going to fail (of course some stuff we just forget).  Now one can already see that if one has a lot in the long term memory than it is going to be easier to think and solve problems than if one has very little in the long term memory, where everything relevant will have to co-exist in the working memory.

Unlike long term memory working memory takes a lot of energy for us to use, it also is very limited in capacity.  In working memory tests most of us can only actively retain 7 new items or so at a time. Humans don’t really like to use it very much and will often work to avoid it.

The good news, however, is that we like to think and we get a nice dopamine reward when we make new connections between information in the environment and information our long term memories. Furthermore, humans are naturally curious, we like making connections, but we are not natural thinkers. In fact, our brains are designed to mostly avoid costly thinking and hence rely mostly on memory or shortcuts (Kanheman’s System 1).  If the connection is too difficult to make than we just won’t make it.

Good teachers already know this–either intuitively or, more often, we have learned the hard way.

Education theorists promote designing lessons so that students are in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal development, the place where they can make the connections. Some students will have to be scaffolded, but we should design level appropriate material that piques student interest just enough. Teachers must respect student’s cognitive limits. Teachers do not want to overload the working memory but we do want students to get the reward of making the connections (we want them to develop an internal love of learning). 

Willingham encourages teachers to design schoolwork so that it has moderately challenging cognitive work (i.e. problems students can solve) that leads to greater understandings.   Lessons should be designed so essential questions become clear at the end and students remember them.  Willingham also encourages changing our pace to keep students curious and engaged.  

I have just explained Willingham’s first principal of the Mind, people are naturally curious but they are not naturally good thinkers.  Here are all nine of his  principals, which helpfully correspond to each chapter in his book.

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2. Factual Knowledge Proceeds Skill

Have you ever wondered why most of the GRE test for grad schools is basically just vocabulary words?  Or for that matter why most of grad school seems to be simply learning the particular vocabulary of a field (ok, well the theorists and a few practical skills too, but mostly lexicon).  This is because we need to know things before we can use them.  This seems almost obvious, but in fact I think this is one of the largest debates in education theory.

In Chapter 2 Willingham pulls out a slew of examples to illustrate this concept. He goes through the evidence to show that reading comprehension relies far more on background knowledge than it does any particular skills (One reason to make classroom work relevant to students backgrounds). Then he moved on to other cognitive work such as games, where research also seems to show that information in long term memories is equally as important for skill development.

The implications for teachers are that we need to get students learning stuff, or else they can’t learn more stuff!   Of course, teachers can’t teach everything but we can focus on the most important concepts and make certain that every student attains those understands.  We should also do everything we can to get students to read!  Students acquire knowledge from everywhere and we should consider that in our materials choices.  We should start early and accept that shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.

Rote Memorization vs. Critical Thinking

At the school where I used to work there were two very dedicated math teachers who are often at odds about the direction of the math department.  One promoted hard work and learning through repetitive homework, where as the other focused on getting students to understand the underlying concepts.   Many teachers I knew came down on one side or the other, with progressive teachers favoring conceptualization, while more traditional ones agreeing that repetition works.   After reading Willingham I have come to believe that they are both right.

In the social sciences this same debate often plays out as critical thinking vs. rote memorization of facts.  Progressive teachers often contrast their goals of developing critical thinking with boring rote memorization techniques.  There is an implication that rote memorization may be effective in getting simple information across but not more complex thinking, which is treated as something entirely different.  Rote memorization may be effective for simple recall tasks, such as multiple choice or other standardized tests.  But–progressives think–those students are really not actually really ‘learning’.  These students who learn through drilling are considered no more than robots, garbage in, garbage out with no real understanding2.  

Willingham does an excellent job shooting down this faulty thinking and explains that critical thinking requires knowing stuff first, and that takes knowledge in one’s memory.  Drills and repetitive exercises do effectively build knowledge.  If you know your times tables by heart you will be able to do more advanced mathematics without stumbling over the easy stuff.  However, students who only learn through these rote techniques will find school boring and turn off learning altogether.  This is a legitimate concern and must be guarded against. 

Furthermore, progressive critics are also right that drills on their own are not enough, and they certainly don’t work at building critical thinking skills. Instead critical thinking skills rely on processes like reasoning and problems solving which are structures in our long term memories.  In fact the rote-memorization vs. Critical thinking is a false dichotomy. We need to build both simultaneously.   

3. Memory is the Residue of Thought

“If you don’t pay attention to something you can’t learn it”3  

For teachers it is absolutely critical to design lessons that consider what the students are going to think about the lesson.  (For those of us who are a few years removed from childhood, it might not be a bad idea to ask a few students from time to time.).  We want to make sure that students are really thinking about the essential understanding we want them to leave with, rather than a showy demonstration or clever tie-in that we may have developed in order to illustrate the concept.

Willingham has quite a few tricks that can help.  Most importantly I think is the value of stories.  Humans seem programmed to remember stories

4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know

Or: Abstract thought is hard!   “Understanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas inot working memory and then rearranging them.”

5. Proficiency requires practice

In some regards Willingham’s book follows a pendulum swinging.  In chapter four he promoted teaching students to look at the deep structures; that teachers should be promoting critical thinking.  In chapter 5, he returns to the fact that drilling knowledge and learning short-cut algorithms that might mask misunderstands are still quite important.  This is because of our limited working memories.  We need to have things down pat before we can really advance.  Practice makes perfect.

6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training

Here the pendulum returns to the benefits of critical thinking. The goal

One lesson that Willingham equally emphasized was that “Experts don’t think in terms of surface features, as novices do; they think in terms of functions, or deep structure.” (p. 133).  The path towards becoming an expert requires modeling deep structure, which requires teachers emphasizing those in their lessons and assessments.  It also requires teachers to understand how to persuade students that those deep thinking—and therefore hard—lesson objectives are critically important.   An expert is not simply one who knows a lot, but rather one who understands abstract structures intimately.   Our goal is to build experts, but first teachers must become experts in both themselves, and their students, and then they need to become master persuaders to take people where they don’t necessarily want to go.

7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.

I firmly believe that a lot of misconceptions in education could be resolved through deeper integration of Cognitive science with Pedagogy.  Even though I have loved my education courses—for the most part—I have learned invaluable education techniques and benefited from quality feedback from dedicated and experienced educators.  However, I have several times been quite shocked to find a lack of research (See Howard’s incredibly popular multiple intelligence theory for example, or the various learning profile techniques).

8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work

This speaks for itself, and is the heart of the new “Grit” in the classroom movement. We can all do it.

9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved

Practice, practice, practice.  Reflect, reflect, reflect.

Willingham’s final chapter is about how to become a better teacher. His final chapter has several helpful recommendations for partnership to regular reflection.  Like any endeavour worth doing, teaching takes hard work.



2.  See philosopher John Searle’s great Chinese Room argument for more on the critical thinking debate.

Internationally, a similar debate often plays out whenever the results from comparative tests such as the P.I.S.A come out.  When Asian countries like South Korea or Singapore—with a core educational model premised on repetitive drills—dominate.  It is lazy—and just flat out wrong—for progressives to dismiss their success.  For example South Korean companies like Samsung are very innovative which speaks to their critical abilities.  However the progressives are also correct, in China “high scores, but low ability” has become so common a criticism of the education system that it is now a common saying.   Rote memorization schemes turn off many students and even those who succeed often do not develop the skills they need to do anything with that knowledge.  A more balanced approach, one which does not discourage innate curiosity, but rather encourages self-directed learning, is surely in need.  Something Asian education ministries recognize and are beginning to change.

3. Here I should point out that I was a part of a group that explained chapters 3 & 4 in a child psychology class at TCNJ. (You can see our more detailed prezi here).   However you can essentially boil our lesson down to Willigham’s quip: “If you don’t pay attention to something you can’t learn it”  

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