Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham

Why Don’t Students Like School (© 2009) by Daniel T. Willingham answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Daniel’s nine principles are still fresh and can guide teachers to become more effective. The chart in the last chapter summarizes the principles and belongs on every teacher’s wall. Click at the bottom of any page to get copies for any teachers you know.

Daniel T. Willingham

  • Daniel has a B.A. in psychology from Duke and a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Harvard. He is currently professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. His research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education. He writes the Ask the Cognitive Scientist column for American Educator magazine. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter at @DTWillingham.

1. Why Don’t Students Like School

  • The big question is: Why is it difficult to make school enjoyable for students? The kind of thinking that is required to solve problems is difficult. To understand why, Daniel explains how thinking happens in a part of our brain called working memory. Working memory draws on two resources to solve problems. The first is information from the environment such as sensory information or facts presented by another person or some kind of media. The second is information and procedures stored in long-term memory. In order to solve a problem, it has to be not too difficult. It also helps keep things interesting if the problem is not trivial. If problems are in this Goldilocks Zone, student curiosity will thrive. It helps if the content in question is interesting to the students, but that is not enough as Daniel demonstrates by telling of a middle school teacher who made the subject of sex boring.
  • With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the teacher’s job is daunting. Problems just right for some will be too easy for some and to hard for others. This implies that it is self-defeating to give all students the same work. It is also necessary to make sure that students have the necessary background knowledge in long-term memory. You also need to avoid overloading working memory with multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, long chains of logic, or the application of a just-learned concept. Ideally the problems can be made more interesting by being relevant to the students’ life outside of school.
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