Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.
Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.
The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:
There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.
Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.
People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.
Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.
He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:
Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.
Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.
Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.
Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:
The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.
We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.
But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.