Thursday, 13 November 2014

Why Don't Students Like School?

The title of this book first drew me to it, as we have all experienced the frustration of not being able to get through to a child. However this book focuses on why student's don't enjoy school because they are not succeeding in their learning, which makes sense as I have never met a child who does not relish the satisfaction of achieving or discovering something new.

Cognitive scientist and author, Daniel Willingham says that people are curious, but not naturally good thinkers.That unless the cognitive conditions are right we will avoid thinking, sounds true for me at least! As teachers we need to understand the science of thinking and reconsider how we encourage students to think in response. The better students think, the more they will learn and the more likely they will enjoy it.


Willingham encourages us not to dismiss the value of knowledge, even in a Google society. That despite all our efforts to teach critical thinking, without an extensive and deep factual knowledge students will struggle to problem solve, to think critically or abstractly. Background factual knowledge is vital and should precede skill, and skill should be taught in context. An example he mentions that I have experienced often in the past is starting a unit with an attention grabber. For example a few years back I started a science unit with the famous 'coke and mentos' experiment. It was a hit of course but what did my students really learn? Not much that day although they were excited and perhaps engaged to being the unit. However, what if I had spent the time developing their knowledge of liquids, gases, and surface tension first, then done the experiment later? Would they have been more likely to think and perhaps come to more informed hypotheses of the experiment? I believe so.

Some of the cognitive principles Willingham discussed are:

How memory works
We need to give meaning to the knowledge for it to be remembered.
Mnemonics are not the devil's work, they are actually excellent memory tools.
Humans are wired to storytelling, so use story structure to teach lessons.

What's the truth about visual, auditory, and kinetics learners?
Its seems there is little truth in this old belief, sure it helps to approach any learning in multiple styles, but that's true for all learners. Students learn by learning meaning.

What's the truth about Multiple Intelligence's?
Surprisingly for me having used multiple intelligence's for many years, cognitive science shows there is no evidence for multiple intelligence's. Maths needs to be taught mathematically, and counting leaves for 'nature smart Johnny' will not help him learn maths better. However multiple intelligence's can still be used successfully with content and to change thinking; just not individuals

Praise effort not ability 
It took me many years and more practise to develop the habit of this one but it is worth reiterating. Cognitive science does confirm that praising effort or the process (not ability) is highly effective in motivating students to learn and develop a positive attitude towards learning. However praise must always be sincere, kids can tell! We need to teach our students that hard work increases intelligence and failure is the road to success.

These are just some of the surprising new things I learnt from reading "Why Don't Students Like School?" and it has certainly challenged some of my past pedagogical practices. It is well worth the read, and I'll leave you with one last major lesson (repeated through this book) that cognitive science has revealed. Practice, practice, practice! Practice makes room in working memory, which allows deeper thinking to take place. When deeper thinking is happening students are more challenged, confident, and hopefully liking school and their own learning journey.