I have long been an admirer of Willingham's effort to make empirical educational psychology accessible to teachers. He writes a regular column ("Ask the Cognitive Scientist") in the American Educator, the national magazine of the American Federation of Teachers. The fact that the AFT presents Willingham's understandable, but nonetheless intellectually challenging articles on a regular basis is a great credit to that organization and has undoubtedly helped thousands of teachers.
Willingham's brand-new book, Why Don't Students Like School?, is one of a handful of books about which one can honestly say: This is one of the most important education books of our time.
Reviewer Christopher Chabris accurately summarizes Willingham's approach:
[Willingham] 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.
Striking the Right Balance When Teaching Abstract Concepts
Let's consider the question that Willingham sets forth in the title: Why don't students like school? Here's Chabris's summary of the answer:
[W]hat 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....
Drill & Practice
One of the constant refrains of today's proponents of Progressive education is that we should do away with "drill and kill." Willingham tackles this issue by showing how drill-and-practice enables learners to commit information to long-term memory, thus freeing their short-term memory to deal with novel problems. As Chabris puts it:
[R]esearch 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.
Critical Thinking Skills
Anyone who has been around schools in the last few decades has heard the Progressive mantra that we need to give priority to a stand-alone skill of "critical thinking." It is part of the repertoire of "21st-century skills" that President Obama wants to impose on our classrooms. But Willingham punctures this fashionable ballon. As Chabris writes:
[S]tudents cannot apply generic "critical thinking skills" (another voguish concept) to new material unless they first understand that material. And they cannot understand it without the requisite background knowledge. The same is true of [reading comprehension]: Trying to use "reading strategies" -- 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.
Multiple Learning Styles
My favorite article of Willingham's in the American Educator has always been his 2005 piece "Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?"
Chabris summarizes what Willingham says in the new book:
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."Willingham doesn't just asset that learning styles don't exist. He carefully explains the experimental evidence against these supposed learning mechanisms.
Content is King
Dan Willingham is a proponent of content-rich instruction. He argues for this approach because scientific research demonstrates that it is the best one.
Mr. Willingham...is not in favor of merely making learning "fun" or "creative." He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student's reading comprehension and critical thinking.This is a book aimed at teachers, but it will be of interest to all who seek better k-12 education policy. Willingham is one of the rare academic authors who can take a technical finding in cognitive psychology, explain its importance, and show how to apply it in the classroom -- and present this classroom application in way that charms and fascinates the reader.