Friday, 23 October 2009

Why Don't Students Like School - Daniel T. Willingham

"Why don't students like school?"

It’s a question that most of us have asked at some point in our lives, some as an educators, others as a parents.

Many students ask that question too as they stare aimlessly at the front of the room, looking like a Goldfish at feeding time. What’s really on their minds is the outcome of their online gaming challenge, or which movie star they find the cutest.

"If you ask 100 high school students if they like to learn new things, almost all of them will tell you they like to learn," said Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist. "But if you ask those same students if they like school, many of them will tell you they don't."

Willingham addresses these issues in a very readable and entertaining way in, "Why Don't Students like School?," where the reader finds out how the mind works, and more importantly, what implications this has for learning.

"The mind is actually designed to avoid thinking," Willingham said. "Thinking is a slow process; it's effortful and even uncertain. People naturally want to avoid that process, and instead rely on memory, the things we already know how to do and are successful at."

Willingham uses cooking as an example.

"If you want to make spaghetti sauce, you could go onto the Internet and search out new recipes. You could go through all your cookbooks. And if you are really into cooking, you might do exactly that. But most people will just make the sauce the way they always make it, because they already know how. And so it's a lot easier that way."

So when you switch on your child’s bedroom light at 6.30am in the morning and get a less than enthusiastic response, you know the reason why: At school they are forced to think and learn, putting them into direct conflict with how our their work. According to Willingham, we are not programmed to learn new things easily, thus it is difficult. Kids and adults naturally take the easy option and avoid the painful cognitive tasks.
But this is true only up to a point, as people are also curious beings.

"People actually enjoy thinking - when it is at a level that is not too simple, and not excessively difficult," Willingham said. "People like to be challenged. That's why we play games, it's why we read books, why we do many of the things we do. So there's a sweet spot, a level where learning is neither too simplistic to be interesting, nor too difficult to be enjoyable. This is the spot that teachers are always trying to find for their students in the classroom."

This is where creative teacher, using a combination of storytelling that evokes emotion and thought, and exercises that put lessons into context, that build upon students foundational knowledge, and help them progress.. It's also sustained hard work, Willingham said, that creates thinking skills dependent upon factual knowledge.

"We want to create learning experiences that last," he said.

Willingham spent about 15 years of his career as a research cognitive scientist, conducting studies under laboratory conditions. Then he started talking to teachers' groups and discovered that what he and other researchers had discovered in the lab was of great interest to teachers in the field.

One question teachers keep asking is how to work with students' different "learning styles." They don't really exist, Willingham said.

"There are different abilities, but really, we all learn the same way," he said. "It's not left brain versus right brain, or visual or auditory or kinesthetic. We learn using a combination of skills, and we are all more similar in our learning styles than different."

And students naturally learn better in the areas or disciplines where their abilities lie. So the challenge for teachers and parents alike is to recognize childrens strengths and exploit them. Obviously this presents a problem: Thirty teenagers in a classroom, some flirting, others fighting, and all with a burning desire to get out of the confined space as quickly as possible. It is a massive challenge, but one that has to be undertaken if the accumulated wisdom of generations is to be passed down to the next effectively. Reading this book is a great read for all those with an interest in the area of educational psychology, and also for an insight into the mind and cognition. Willingham has made complex subject matter highly readable and sparklingly entertaining.


DD said...

this is relevant to myself now that ive went back to uni after such a long time - its taking my brain a bit of time to get back into gear i.e getting the 'cogs' moving in the way they used to - takes a good bit of concentration. i am hoping repetition of this will make it easier as time goes on.

the difference this time around is that i actually want to go to all the lectures, go to all the tutorials, do work at the weekend so i am prepared etc - it was never like that 10 years ago when i did it first time around on the learning 'conveyor belt' that is from school to uni without even thinking about was i ready for it or did i need some time out etc. i certainly have had quite a bit of time out this time around...

in 7 months time i shall know the outcome.

Singapore Dividend Collector said...

Indeed DD. Good to see you getting the 'cogs' turning again as you put it. Learning is such a wonderful life long pursuit, and I personally am very excited about spending the rest of my life, dedicated to the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge for knowledge's sake.

Long may it continue.


Unknown said...

I also took a long break from learning. I think it was while I was supposedly learning. Then, after getting out of college, I realized I'd stepped off the train too soon. Back on we go.

Unknown said...

If you found this book an interesting read, you might also like "I won't learn from you" And Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment by Herbert Kohl. I was particularly enamored of the chapter on Creative Maladjustment, but all of the chapters/essays were written well and eye-openers.