Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom

Professor Willinghams analysis admired by Professor Wiliam


Professor Dylan Wiliam highly recommends this book-a must read- he says, for teachers. In “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Professor Daniel Willingham, a highly regarded cognitive scientist teaching at the University of Virginia, poses nine questions that a teacher might want to ask a cognitive scientist beginning with the question in the title and then answers each, citing empirical studies and suggesting ways for teachers to improve their practice accordingly. But Professor Willingham’s answers apply just as well outside the classroom.  Indeed anyone who cares about how we learn should find his book valuable reading.  We know that many pupils, perhaps most, are bored by their school work. So why don’t students like school? According to Professor Willingham, one major reason is that what school requires students to do- think abstractly – is in fact not something our brains are designed to be good at or to enjoy. When we confront a task that requires us to exert mental effort, it is critical that the task be just difficult enough to hold our interest but not so difficult that we give up in frustration. When this balance is struck, it is actually pleasurable to focus the mind for long periods of time. For an example, just watch a person beavering away at a crossword or playing chess in a noisy public park. But schoolwork and classroom time rarely keep students’ minds in this state of “flow” for long. The result is boredom and displeasure. The challenge, for the teacher, is to design lessons and exercises that will maximize interest and attention and thus make students like school at least a bit more. But this doesn’t mean ignoring the basics and simply focusing on the fun element. Professor Willingham notes that students cannot apply generic “critical thinking skills” to new material unless they first understand that material. And they cannot understand it without the requisite background knowledge.  Indeed he advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student’s reading comprehension and critical thinking. Trying to use “reading strategies”  for example,  like searching for the main idea in a passage, will be futile if you don’t know enough facts to fill in what the author has left unsaid. Here, as always Willingham shows how experiments support his claims.  As one reviewer says ‘This perhaps makes him something of an iconoclast, since 21st-century educational theory is ruled by concepts like “multiple intelligences” and “learning styles.”’  The book builds chapter by chapter, taking the reader through cognitive theory explaining it succinctly and applying the author’s expertise to the teaching arena.


What about drilling ie repetition?  Does it work?  The answer is yes, apparently, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics. Another question: “What is the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?” According to Willingham, this goal is too ambitious: Students are ready to understand knowledge but not create it. For most, that is enough. Attempting a great leap forward is likely to fail.  What about personalised learning and creating learning styles for individual learners? Willingham is dismissive. The trendy notion that each person has a unique learning style comes under an especially withering assault. “How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?” asks Mr. Willingham’s hypothetical teacher. The disillusioning reply: “No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”  It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in “style,” researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as “auditory learners” and “visual learners.” Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners. But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum — at all levels of schooling — is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. “Specious,” for instance, means “seemingly logical, but actually fallacious” whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Willingham makes a case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.  Willingham’s analysis is thought provoking and manages to de-bunk a number of myths   explaining how we  learn and how  teachers ought to teach.





  1. The irony about this post is that any half decent, experienced teacher knows all this anyway and designs their lessons, and interactions with children, accordingly. I recently returned from a study tour to Finland and the one thing above all else which struck me was the remarkable consistency I found amongst teachers about what constitutes good quality classroom practice. I can’t imagine Gardiner getting any kind of hearing in any of the numerous schools there I visited.

  2. What educationalists in the UK don’t understand about Gardiner is that he is a social psychologist, not a teacher or educationalist. I spent two summers in California, a lot of time associated with the psychology department at UC Davis and I discovered that what US universities call “Psychology,” UK universities would call “Sociology.” The subject is not taught in a clinical or psychiatry context at all. To be fair, Gardiner himself is very frank about this and I have heard him open a speech in the UK by apologising for not being an educator, but a social engineer.

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