Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why Don't Students Like School?

Why Don't Students Like School?
A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom

by Daniel T. Willingham

In Why Don't Students Like School?, cognitive scientist and educator Daniel T. Willingham makes cognitive theory accessible, bridging the gap between theory and practice.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each of which is begins with a question (like Why do students remember everything that's on television and forget everything I say?) and is focused on a fundamental principle and it's applicability to the classroom. The principles are:
  1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
  2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  3. Memory is the residue of thought.
  4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  5. Proficiency requires practice.
  6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
  7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
  8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.
This book was required reading in preparation for our information literacy summit next month. It's geared toward K-12 teachers, but I found it very enlightening nevertheless, particularly the sections in which Willingham dispels certain prevalent pedagogical practices.

My favorite quote from the book is one that Willingham cites in his notes for chapter one: Sir Joshua Reynolds' "There is no expedient to which man will not resort to avoid the read labor of thinking" (17).

The one thing that I didn't like very much about the book was the layout of the text. Willingham includes lots of visual material (charts, graphs, illustrative photographs), but they are occasionally distracting* and the way the text flows around them on certain pages is very awkward.

* This is particularly the case with the image of the author's grandmother on page 123. In chapter three Willingham writes about a 4th grade teacher who had his students bake biscuits as part of a unit on the Underground Railroad (because biscuits were a food staple for runaway slaves). He explains why this wasn't an effective lesson because the students spent more time thinking about measuring flour, etc. than about the Underground Railroad. For me, the grandma photo was like the biscuits. I vaguely remember something about "grandma psychology" but have completely forgotten the broader context.

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