Dan Willingham is an American cognitive psychologist who recently   wrote a rather good  and popular book – Why Students Don’t Like School  . Cognitive psychology is on the education agenda –it basically attempts to work out how the brain works and how people think , learn and,  indeed, retain learning and information and  how they decide and make choices . If you know this you can adjust your style of teaching and the learning environment accordingly to aid student learning. At least that’s the theory.
Some educators believe that part of the problem in schools is that pupils lack motivation and engagement, due to boredom. Even back in Aristotles day pupils got bored and education was regarded by many children as a painful experience -ie the roots of education are bitter , but the fruits are sweet etc . So, maybe the biggest challenge  remains as it was in his day  to make education more interesting and relevant. In other words, as you teach children show them how they can apply what they are learning to everyday life, demonstrating to them the point of it all. But Willingham doesn’t buy this. He writes:
‘ Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work. As I noted in Chapter One, content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interest is maintained. For example, I love cognitive psychology, so you might think, “Well, to get Willingham to pay attention to this math problem, we’ll wrap it up in a cognitive psychology example.” But Willingham is quite capable of being bored by cognitive psychology, as has been proved repeatedly at professional conferences I’ve attended. Another problem with trying to use content to engage students is that it’s sometimes very difficult to do and the whole enterprise comes off as artificial.’


‘As I’ve emphasized, structuring a lesson plan around conflict can be a real aid to student learning. Another feature I like is that, if you succeed, you are engaging students with the actual substance of the discipline. I’ve always been bothered by the advice “make it relevant to the students,” for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn’t apply. Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way they can understand right now? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students’ lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it’s phony. Second, if I can’t convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn’t teach it? If I’m continually trying to build bridges between students’ daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don’t have much to do with me. I’m not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I’m suggesting is that student interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas.’



  1. I’m currently reading ‘Curious’ by Ian Leslie. It suggests that the key to it all is in having an enquiring mind. That is not something we can teach, only cultivate – and it is not done by pandering to pupils’ ease and self-centredness.

    • Agree. But teachers understand teaching or at least most do, but cultivation , which suggests personalisation and a more nuanced sensitive approach ? Young people are hugely self centred and a sign of maturity is to get beyond the me or I. and advance to the we. and us.
      I shall look up Leslies book .. so thanks for that..

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