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Why you should read: Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham

Written By: Tom Sherrington
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An influential book about cognitive science which focuses on how memory underpins understanding.

Deep knowledge is always the goal, but everything we learn must connect to something we already know.

What is it about?

Why Don’t Students Like School? provides an overview of some key findings from cognitive science and their implications for teachers in classrooms. Chapters include ‘Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say?’ and ‘Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?’

Willingham uses a ‘simple model of the mind’ to explain how working memory and long-term memory interact with the environment. This leads to nine key cognitive principles, including:

  • Factual knowledge precedes skill. You cannot think about a topic properly without sufficient knowledge of it; skills deficits are usually really knowledge deficits
  • ‘Memory is the residue of thought.’ This is probably Willingham’s most famous line. It means that we remember the things we think about, even if we were hoping to learn something else
  • We understand things in the context of things we already know. Deep knowledge is always the goal, but everything we learn must connect to something we already know.

What are the main messages for teachers?

The book is packed with suggestions, but some of the main ones are:

  • Review each lesson in terms of what students are likely to think about. If you make a Powerpoint about the Amazon, for example, it is likely to cause more thinking about fonts, images and animations than features of the Amazon. Students need tasks that make them process the meaning of concepts and facts, linking them to their existing knowledge
  • Use extended practice to secure proficiency in mental tasks, for example, rehearse a maths strategy or grammatical structure until it becomes fluent. Practising over time helps more than doing it all at once
  • Be careful with discovery learning when engaging with new material. It’s risky asking novice learners to work out patterns and rules because they can form significant misconceptions that are hard to unpick later. Make deep understanding, not the creation of new knowledge, the priority
  • Show your students you have confidence in them without falsely praising second-rate work. Always giving value to well-directed hard work.

Top Tip

Plan your lessons so that students spend maximum time processing the ideas you want them to remember.

Want to know more?

Willingham, T. (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? Jossey-Bass.

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