Review: Why don’t students like school? Daniel Willingham

In this highly cited work, Willingham delves into the hidden mind of the classroom student and tries to uncover the cognitive science behind their learning.

The crucial take-away for me from this book is that “memory is the residue of thought.”  This is a crucial line from the book and is a crucial tool for learning. Trying to make activities desperately engaging and related to students’ interests can actually hinder the learning process as students are thinking (and therefore remembering) different material to what the teacher is actually aiming to teach.

Secondly, there is the idea that a student’s working memory is fixed.  That is, the amount of information a student can keep in their thoughts at one time is fixed and cannot really be altered.  As a result, in order to tackle highly complex problems and higher level thinking, basic knowledge must be automated (unconscious) so students have free working memory capacity to solve problems and be creative.

Willingham stresses one of the main reasons why students don’t like school is that they run out of working memory capacity before they have reached the outcome of the question or problem they faced.  As a result, it is imperative that we can free up students’ working memories by automating certain factual knowledge and information so they can maximise their conscious working memory to tackle the problem at hand.

Reading is another aspect where knowledge is key.  If students have knowledge of the content of the article, comprehension unsurprisingly goes up.  As a result, if comprehension is low it may be that students just simply don’t have the pre-requisite knowledge to understand the article.

Finally, Willingham suggests that we can’t train students to think like experts.  Experts, unsurprisingly, have accumulated vast quantities of information and the deep structures of understanding allow experts to tackle problems from different stances.

Possible Practical Implications

1) Get students to automate basic skills to free up their working memories.

2) Make sure students practise:  it is virtually impossible to become proficient without practising.

3) Link old knowledge with new knowledge and provide new knowledge using examples they are familiar with.

4) Vocabulary needs to be explicitly learnt in order to aid comprehension of texts.

5) When planning, plan for what you want the students to think about.  Whatever they think about is what they will remember.  This has ramifications for making tasks ‘interesting.’  Are students going to think about something that you don’t want them to be thinking about?

6) Make basic processes, such as times tables, automatic to free up working memory capacity.

It really is one of the classics in Teaching and Learning reading and a must-read for all educationalists.


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