Why Don’t Students Like School

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham, a Professor of Psych at U of Virginia.

1. “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

It’s important to note what he means by “naturally” here. Humans are designed to learn language like a sponge is designed to suck up water. The only way to keep a child from learning language is to make sure she is never exposed to it. Even infrequent exposure will result in some linguistic ability. Rational thinking, on the other hand, takes a back seat to pattern recognition. Like a back of a really long and crowded bus back seat. To clarify, I’ll use the saber-tooth tiger model from evolutionary psychology.
Pattern recognition is essentially seeing things as they are and assuming they will always be that way. It’s a built in logical fallacy of the brain, but it’s one that has kept the species going all these years; it’s faster to rely on patterns than thought in a life or death situation. Statistically speaking, patterns tend to hold. The unfortunate consequence of this trait is a tendency toward racism, superstition, and other false patterns. Survival is more important than philosophy where Darwin is concerned.
The consequence of this for education is that new information is very difficult to assimilate if it can’t be fit into the context of the existing pattern of the mind. How “intelligent” someone appears to be has a lot more to do with whether what you’re assessing them on is relevant to them than is does with actual cognitive ability.

2. “Factual Knowledge must precede skill.”

By “factual knowledge” he’s not talking about memorizing dry lists of names and dates. He’s really just restating the premise of the previous chapter. Without some previous background knowledge, or pre-existing pattern recognition, the brain has a much more difficult time processing the information. There is little doubt that this is the real reason why some people are “not good at math”. The subject is all too often taught with no context, and so the brain cannot process it easily. Those of us who are “good at math” most likely had at least the basics taught to them within some context. Once the basics are established, there is then a collection of patterns that the brain can work any new pattern into.
There’s an interesting example from the book. Take a look at the following paragraph: The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient, depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many.
While this probably made some sort of sense to you, you probably wouldn’t want to be tested on it a week from now. Unless I told you what it was actually about, which is doing laundry. Most people have an “ah ha!” at this point and realize that the paragraph makes more sense than they initially thought. Now imagine the feeling of a kid who is labeled as a poor reader. Chances are that if you give that kid a book about baseball (or whatever he’s into) his reading and concentration ability would dramatically improve.
The consequence of needing old patterns to develop new ones is that the more you know, the easier it is for you to learn more. The fewer things you know, the less context your brain has, and the harder it has to work to process new information.

3. “Memory is the residue of thought”

“Thought”, here, exists in two dimensions. Quantity and intensity. Repeating something over and over again, like the way you memorize a phone number (for those of us old enough to remember when people still did that) is one way to process it, but not very efficient. It’s actually very easy to do something repeated while hardly thinking at all, as anyone who’s ever had an entry leve corporate job can tell you. Another way is to think about it intensely; things that have associated emotion are more memorable than things that don’t. It’s easier to remember the names of our friends and family than it is to memorize the list of US Presidents. Whether something has meaning will determine the level of intensity of thought it generates.
If you have a list of vocabulary words to memorize, making flashcards for yourself is one way to learn them, but it would be much more efficient to work them into a context. Sentences are good, a whole story would be better. The more context, the more meaning; the more meaning, the more intense the thought; the more thought, the more memory.
As an analogy of where a teacher failed to take this into account, he gives the example of a teacher who wants to create a memorable lesson on the Underground Railroad, and has them make simple biscuits, since that’s what they ate. He pointed out that the students would probably remember the novel lesson, they’d spend the majority of the time thinking about flour, eggs and butter and very little time thinking about the lesson itself. Consequently the lesson would not be successful. A well designed lesson needs to pull the students’ attention to the right place, or it will only serve as a distraction.

4. “We understand things in the context of what we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.”

This chapter is about why people have difficulty with abstract ideas. Since we understand things in the context of the patterns we already have in place, and since those patterns tend to be based on whatever we can get directly from our senses, the brain has a hard time with abstractions. The solution is to provide a large array of examples, and to keep asking students to look at the deep structure of whatever is being taught.
One of the examples he gives here is a student trying to solve a problem for the area of a table top and and the area of a soccer field. The deep structure of both of these problems is the area of a rectangle, length times width. When we’re first learning to solve these problems, we only have the concrete patterns of a table and a soccer field to associate them with. What educators need to be doing here is guiding the student to the idea of getting to the deep structure. What do these things have in common? They’re both rectangles. There you go.

5. “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.”

Practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes permanent. The reason we practice is to make things automatic. Also, when procedures or facts are practiced, they become associated together into patterns or “chunks”. Working memory can only hold a few items at once, and consequently it is the bottleneck for cognition. The way around this is to group the items into chunks by practicing, enabling the working memory to effectively hold more information in the same amount of space.
For example, suppose you are called upon to memorize the letters N, O, I, T, I, N, G, O, and C. This would require you to hold nine items in your working memory at once, unless you realized that all I did was spell the word cognition backwards. The word cognition is only one item, from the brain’s point of view. Grouping the letters together this way saves us from having to keep nine items in mind separately.
In addition to grouping things together, practice makes memories last longer. In the book he cites a study of people who still remembered their algebra later in life. The ones who practiced their algebra by taking more math after the course remembered longer and better than those who didn’t. The study does take into account the level of intelligence of each of the people, so it really was just the amount of practice. This is also a way of practicing without so much repetition, by folding the practice into higher level skills. Once you’ve got the hang of dribbling a basketball, you can continue to practice it by actually playing the game. There’s no need to stand there and mindlessly dribble the ball with no context.

6. “Cognition early in training is different from cognition late in training.”

This chapter is basically an answer to the question of getting kids to think like expert scientists or historians. The short answer is you can’t. The information in the expert’s brain is already organized into patterns and metapatterns. To expect a beginner to think without the benefit of years of practice and information gathering/pattern forming would be to ignore all the other cognitive principles presented so far.

7. “Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”

This is basically a debunking of the idea that some people learn by sight, some learn by sound, and some by touch. It is true that some people are better at learning visual things and some people are better at remembering sounds, but the kinds of facts we expect kids to learn in school are rarely what something looks or sounds like. There isn’t any good evidence that shows that the other senses can be better or worse gateways into the fact storing part of the brain. So if someone is an auditory learner and excels at remembering sounds, the theory goes that they will remember better if they hear something than if they read it. An auditory learner will have a better ability to remember the sounds, but the part of the brain that handles language is what processes the meaning of the words. There isn’t any advantage to an audiobook over a text book for an auditory learner, unless that person happens to have a literacy issue.

8. “Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.”

Apart from the information gathering and pattern recognition things already mentioned, the brain is an extremely malleable thing. Even attributes that are “genetic” can be changed. Whether you are right or left handed is determined genetically, but if you were to lose a limb, you could learn to write just as well with the “wrong” hand, even though it would be a frustrating process. There are even people who have lost both arms and have learned to write well with their feet. Of course you could do this even without losing a limb, but not many people are that motivated.
He gives an interesting analogy about the influence of genes on intelligence. It’s obvious that there is no gene for basketball ability, but there is a gene for height and for adrenaline tolerance. Having the right versions of these genes will result in the person practicing more because their tolerance for frustration will be increased, and their height will get them picked for more teams, even if someone shorter might be a better player. Similarly, a tendency to be tenacious and a high tolerance for frustration will result in a more intelligent person.

9. “Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.”