Learning, Innovation & Tech

Bombs & Breakthroughs

Battle Of The Minds: Why Don't Kids Like School?

CJW, August 16, 2010 2:43 PM


Previously Published by The Daily Riff 2/10

By Jonathan E. Martin

Why Don't Students Like School?   More importantly, why doesn't Daniel Willingham like 21st century learning, and why must he fight those who seek to make education more meaningful, more productive, and more authentically engaging for our students? 


516sBlAXaxL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_.jpgMuch attention is being directed to Virginia Professor Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School?,  most of it to his claim that there is no quality evidence supporting the theory and widespread practice of teaching to students different learning styles or "modalities."  But Willingham's book deserves broader consideration: again and again this well intentioned cognitive scientist makes claims that seem intentionally provocative but poorly established, designed more to undermine reform than to advance student learning.   Upon close reading, his arguments against teaching for imagination, against connecting learning to "relevancy," and against teaching students to think as scientists utterly fail to convince.

Willingham's Chapter 2 (Factual knowledge must precede skill) makes a sustained argument that Einstein was wrong when he said "imagination is more important than knowledge."  Students, he explains, need facts to think well, to have something to think about, to better inform their thinking, and to better learn new facts in the future.  I agree with all of these points.  

But, surely students will learn more content knowledge when they are acting upon the knowledge, and when then they are approaching that knowledge with an inquiry analysis, and when they seek to use the knowledge they are learning in practical, applied ways.  In doing so, they learn the knowledge better, and are better informed to learn new and additional knowledge, which itself will be best be learned by inquiry and application.

Willingham tacks back and forth in this chapter, often contradicting himself, and at times we agree exactly, as here: "the cognitive processes that are most esteemed- logical thinking, problem solving, and the like, are intertwined with knowledge.  It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value.  It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking without factual knowledge."

Intertwined, yes.  Willingham makes a similar point elsewhere in the chapter: "we must ensure students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills."  Parallel, yes, parallel is different from "preceding."  My argument is that facts do not precede knowledge, they are indeed intertwined and parallel, and that to ask which comes first is as useful as to ask of the chicken and egg.  

Einstein wasn't wrong.  Imagination is more important-not because it has nothing to do with knowledge, nor because it isn't enhanced by knowledge- it is.   But it is more important because it both precedes knowledge, generating the motivation to inquire, to ask why, to seek to learn more, and because when informed by knowledge, it accomplishes more, generates new knowledge, advances us as a species.

Willingham also takes a misstep when he offers the following:  "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.  I suppose we are supposed to take these remarks as ironic, or at least interesting, but I for one don't need brilliant, highly capable minds telling me and my children how silly it is to know things."

This statement really is pure exaggeration and rhetoric, utterly disrespectful of mature interlocution.   In denigrating schools, the thinkers he is disputing are not suggesting it is silly to know things; of course they are not.   They are saying students are not learning in  schools that teach in the manner of factories, and that we still see many classrooms (I have seen many) where  lectures and textbooks only deliver factual content, ad nauseam, and do not at all do exactly what Willingham has called for several times in this chapter.  The critics are criticizing the (many!) classrooms where skills are not intertwined with knowledge, where they are not learned in parallel.

Onto Chapter 3 (Memory is the Residue of Thought), in which Willingham also has wonderful insights and offers a brilliant nugget that should inform teachers and teaching everywhere: students learn and remember the things they spend their time thinking about.  Excellent point, simple but highly valuable.   So why does he have to attack teaching which seeks relevancy?  "Trying to make the material relevant to students' interests doesn't work." 

We want students to spend more time thinking more deeply about the material they are learning.   It is hard to accept the assertion they won't do exactly this, spend more time, and think more deeply, if it is on a topic that has some meaning to them.  Willingham is right in part- sometimes it is just plain hard to find the relevancy, and sometimes the effort to do so does feel forced and artificial.   Relevancy is a broad concept, but sometimes it can be found in very narrow ways- students do think more, and are far more engaged, when they are able to make a link from what they are learning to something in their own lives, in their own future, or that provides them a means to an end, (be it a small end or large).

Willingham contradicts himself, probably because his original thesis in this chapter is impossible to sustain. On page 49, our author asserts quite emphatically that relevancy in curriculum doesn't work; on page 65, he offers a far more nuanced discussion of the same issue: "I'm not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in."  

The examples he provides for his central argument here don't support his claim, as in the following: "It often feels to me that it doesn't apply.  Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way that they can understand right now?...Making these topics relevant to students' lives will be a strain."  But Gilgamesh is an ancient tale that is still meaningful as a heroic journey and a coming of age story that most definitely can be linked to the eternal passage of youth that our students are themselves undergoing.   Good teachers do that- I have seen them do it, and I have seen the room come alive, and I have seen students in these rooms think far more than in the others.

In Chapter 6 (Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training) Willingham asserts that that there is a "flawed assumption:" students are not "cognitively capable of doing what scientists or historians do."  "Trying to get your students to think like them [experts, scientists, historians] is not a realistic goal."   But, to the contrary, education is at its best when we engage, motivate, and train our young minds when we respect their capacity and challenge and support them to act like young professionals, to act in the mode of historians and scientists.

Professor Willingham offers the main support for his claim by explaining that students are not experts, and that experts think better than students.  OK, stipulated here, accurate but hardly illuminating.  He goes on to explain how they think differently, not just better: "they see the deep structure of problems.. and have41c6cMi5MJL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_.jpg abstract knowledge of problem types."   And he explains how experts develop this expertise: experts become experts, we are told, by spending ten years and ten thousand hours (just as Gladwell explains in Outliers) developing that expertise.  Yes.

But then there seems to be a quite significant logical mistake on Willingham's part, and I want to use his example of Edison to make my point.  Edison, our cognitive science professor sternly admonishes, became an expert by working so hard for so long.   Fine. 

But my memory of Edison biographies is that that expertise, arrived at after so many thousands of hours of practice, did not come from thousands of hours spent in lecture halls, textbooks, and note-taking.   Edison became an expert scientist after spending thousand of hours as an amateur scientist.  The same could be said for musicians, which are a prime example of Willingham's argument; virtuoso musicians become so by thousands of hours of practicing as musicians, not thousand of hours listening to lectures and reading textbooks and taking tests about music.   Look at Gladwell's explanation of the genius of Bill Gates: he came by that genius by beginning to program computers in his teens, not by spending nine years at MIT earning a doctorate in computer science.

Contra Willingham, we can best create innovative, independent minded, industrious and indeed genius scientists and historians by challenging and supporting them to act as, and think as, scientists and historians.  

51GG81ZWZGL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA240_SH20_OU01_.jpgAlison Gopnik, who stands as a peer to Willingham, also a cognitive psychologist but at Berkeley rather than Virginia, has written brilliantly on this very topic.   In her book, the Scientist in the Crib, she makes the case that children are, from infancy, naturally scientists, and, tragically, school often drives out their curiosity and knowledge constructing talents.

Like many educators, I have observed that the high school classrooms which are most cognitively charged and most invigorating were those like the ones at New Technology High School, where students wrote their own textbooks and tackled real world science problems.  I would love for Professor Willingham to see these classrooms in action and continue to maintain his position that we cannot expect students to learn from acting as scientists and historians.

Willingham has a lot to offer, and there is much to find useful in Why Don't Students Like School? But his rhetoric often clouds or contradicts his findings, and educators reading this book for wisdom would be well advised to do so very carefully.


Jonathan E. Martin is Head-Elect of St. Gregory College Preparatory School in Tucson, AZ and was previously the Director of Maybeck High School and Saklan Valley School, both in California.   Jonathan was a teacher of High School History, Social Studies, and English.  He graduated with a B.A. degree from Harvard University; Starr King School for the Ministry; and an M.A. from the Education School of the University of San Francisco.   Complete bio and blog link here.

Daniel Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education.  (from Willingham's webite). Complete bio link here.  Link to an excerpt of his book is here on the American Federation of Teachers website.


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