Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009) will challenge your beliefs about how students learn and how teachers should teach. Teachers would benefit from reading this accessible work of cognitive science and administrators interested in helping teachers would also benefit.
Willingham maintains that people are not designed to think. Our brains naturally default to routines and previous knowledge (aka memories). Thinking is hard—so therefore we need to create ideal conditions. And this is what set this book apart. Willingham gives specific recommendation for teachers on how to create ideal thinking situations (e.g. ensuring there are problems to be solved, changing the pace).
Perhaps the most engaging chapter for me was Chapter 2: “How Can I Teach Students the Skills They Need When Standardized Tests Require Only Facts?” Willingham makes the seemingly unpopular argument that facts must precede skill. After all, we seem to have reached a point in intellectual discourse when everyone’s opinion is relatively equal and unpopular opinions are dismissed as fake news. We can certainly teach students the skill to decipher real vs. fake news. But the problem is when they aren’t accepted facts (e.g. the Holocaust) it is difficult to have intellectual discourse. In all disciplines, students need to learn facts as building blocks to becoming experts. He even makes a case for drilling! Memory is residue of thought, after all.
Willingham goes on to make great arguments about memory, emotion, and thought and he has a great section debunking multiple intelligences. But he challenges to teachers to improve lesson plans (paying attention to storytelling structures), stop praising students for intelligence and instead praising effort, and to improve their professional practice. Most teachers, after all, believe their skills as teachers don’t need to improve. Willingham uses the example of driving. Once you’ve learned, you don’t believe you need to improve. But in fact if we want to become better drivers, we better study, get feedback, and TRY to get better.
Willingham suggests a process for teachers to improve professional practice: consciously trying to improve, seeking feedback on your teaching, and undertaking activities for the sake of improvement, even if they don’t directly contribute to your job. He even suggests a process for teachers to seek feedback from peers. After all, proficiency demands practice.