School & District Management

So Why Don’t Students Like School?

By Debra Viadero — May 04, 2009 1 min read
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The popularity of crossword puzzles and Sudoku attests to the fact that thinking can, in fact, be quite entertaining. Yet most kids don’t enjoy school, the one place they come for the purpose of learning to think. What gives?

Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, attempts to answer that question in a new book published by Jossey-Bass. Appropriately titled Why Don’t Students Like School?, the book boils down findings from hundreds of studies in cognitive science into nine principles to guide practicing classroom teachers. Willingham is experienced at doling out this sort of nuts-and-bolts advice. He writes the Ask the Cognitive Scientist column for AFT’s American Educator magazine.

Even though humans are naturally curious, Willingham says in his book, they are not naturally good thinkers.

Thinking is slow and unreliable work. Nevertheless, people enjoy mental Image work if it is successful. People like to solve problems, but not to work on unsolvable problems. If schoolwork is always just a bit too difficult for a student, it should be no surprise that she doesn't like school much.

Some of the book’s lessons will come as a surprise to advocates of teaching approaches that emphasize critical thinking and analysis over content knowledge. Willingham says his reading of the research shows that such skills require extensive factual knowledge first.

Willingham also champions the evil twins of “drill and practice,” pointing out that practice is necessary because it reduces the amount of “room” that the mind has to do its mental work. The trick for teachers is to use practice more effectively, spacing it out, for instance, or embedding it in teaching more advanced skills.

The professor is also no fan of the popular idea that children are born with multiple, distinct intelligences, such as musical intelligence. He prefers to think of most of those qualities as abilities. “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn,” he writes.

The science here is highly readable and, yes, even entertaining in a Sudoku-kind of way. For a more extensive review of the book, see this article from the WSJ online.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.

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