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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review: 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

Once again, I get a mis-titled book.  This doesn’t address the concept of why students do not like school.  As you will see, I’m not putting down the contents of the book, generally, but whoever is in charge of naming books needs to find another line of work.

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive scientist.  The book is well written, as it’s not muddled down with a lot of technical jargon and uses real, concrete examples to prove his points.  Oh, and the first 4/5ths of the book drove me crazy!

As a radical teacher who has fought (and mostly lost) for more differentiated, real-world education, a lot of Willingham’s explanations of how the brain works had me screaming at the book.  At one point, I think I actually wagged my finger at the book and for some reason it didn’t change.  I’m not necessarily disputing his data or conclusions, but how it relates to its intended audience.  For a while, Willingham seemed to be advocating for traditional, teacher-centered education and it was driving me nuts.

Rather than give you a summary of the book chapter by chapter, here are some of the notes I took as I was reading:

“Must have background facts to be able to comprehend.  (Poor kids, no books, etc = smaller vocabulary)”
“Acknowledges that facts are needed to get skills, but decries those who see schools as all rote memorization and no thinking.”
“Even with facts – depth over breadth.”
“I’m getting the impression author’s calling for linguistic learning.  Don’t make learning relevant to their interests.”
“Also, knowledge is teacher-centric.”
“Special Ed kids?”
“Ch 5 – still advocating for practice/repetitive learning.  ‘Why Don’t Children Like School?’”
“Advocating for study of others’ knowledge because kids can’t create their own.”
“Cognitive theory refutes multiple intelligence theory.”
“Doesn’t interest and motivation affect learning?”
“So if we teach traditionally, we will need to change culture about how we value learning.”
“Change brings attention.”
“Background knowledge is key to success in school.”
“Intelligence is malleable.”
“Intelligence is genetic and environmental, but more environmental.”
“1st step – convince students that intelligence can be improved.”
“Ch 8 – Viable suggestions about praise and failure.”
“Failure and grades.”

I read the book while trying to be accepting that cognitive theory was in conflict with my philosophy of education.  But later in the book, Willingham says that just teaching to cognitive theory is NOT what he is calling for.  I agree.  Activities for motivation and interest are important as well and not just for content.  By the end of the book, even a “cool” teacher like me was able to take away ideas and concepts that would improve my teaching.

I don’t think this book would help the novice teacher who is in over his head or the burned out teacher who just wants to hand out the worksheets and count down until retirement (though, more of the former than latter).  And with most educational discussion that doesn’t focus on teaching to invalid standardized tests, there’s only so much the reflective teacher can do with the pressures from above on test scores.  But the book makes an educator question his own beliefs and practices and that is always good. 

A great sequel to this book would be for Willingham to teach in a public high school for a year or two then reflect on how the job relates to WDSLS.  That would be fascinating.  But until that comes out, teachers, grab WDSLS.  You’ll knock off all 165 pages while your students are doing their worksheets.

Listen to Dave reviewing the book on the podcast here.

Addendum: A Facebook friend told us, "I've been craving this book for quite some time now! This review pretty much seals the deal."

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