Ron’s #11: Why Don’t Students Like School? By Daniel T. Willingham

I get tired of hearing the phrase, “Brain research shows…” to prove whatever point teachers are trying to show at the time. Whether it is about the importance of play, the use of movies, standing on your head before a test, or studying on the toilet, educators pull these three words and throw them down on the table like the trump card they’ve been saving to illuminate a point. The problem is that most teachers, including me, have no idea about brain research or even where to begin. Because of this, I sought to find a book to offer a basic understanding for dum-dums like me.

The subtitle of this book is, “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom.” This is a better explanation for the information, as I still don’t know why students don’t like school (perhaps it has something to do with me!). I suppose I could sum up the book as follows:

  1. People are naturally curious.
  2. Teachers create “problems” far too easy or too difficult.
  3. Students do not have background information necessary to engage a problem, thus making it easy to quit.
  4. Teachers present information in a disconnected way, thus students cannot remember background information to address critical thinking problems.
  5. Students sit and force themselves to hold back both sleep and drool, while dreaming about that cute girl sitting in the front.
  6. Students are no longer curious.

As I read, I made liberal notes throughout, and it will be a book to revisit. If you are a teacher, I think that you’ll find this to be an important work for your professional growth. At face value, here are the three main points that I have thought most about since completing this:

  1. As I already listed, people are naturally curious. I like this idea, and I must remember it as I teach. Am I creating problems that challenge students to think and wrestle with in class, problems that are still within their reach for success? Reducing the amount of other work to focus on more of this kind of work is something that I want to do. This includes offering more opportunities for students to play with language and words. Sometimes, I forget about this as I try to meet content standards.
  2. Memorization is important, as it provides the building blocks for critical thinking. The author is not suggesting long lists of information to remember. However, in order for our brains to conquer a problem, basic materials are needed. This could be definitions, word parts, poetry, multiplication tables, etc. Modern teaching often belittles memorizing as outdated pedagogy, but when students do not know the times tables or what the definition of an allusion is, the critical thinking engagement is crippled.
  3. The effectiveness of “multiple intelligences” is over-emphasized in education. According to Wellingham, educators put too much stock in this, as there does not seem to be different intelligences, rather strengths and talents. We do students a disservice when we tell them that they are smart in some area, even if they are not the same. His suggestion is that we focus on varying the lessons (sometimes visual, using music, acting, etc.) rather than on each student. This is the area that teachers will squirm and protest the most. Multiple intelligences are the sacred cows of education. If you don’t believe me, as a teacher you know about them. Their eyes will light up as they tell you about how they had students act out what a commas does or sing about a Picasso painting.

Why Don’t Students Like School? is the perfect primer for educators to get a peek into the complex and deep world of brain research. I still won’t use “brain research shows…” in my next conversation, but I found this book a good first step in understanding how it relates to education.

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One comment

  • Preston
    March 22, 2010 - 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I need to borrow this one.
    I was bored in school. Very very very bored. I was the classic underachiever. Would you believe Ron that I was actually a “D” student? The classes I always excelled in where classes like “History”. Seriously my favorite authors where Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. Go figure.
    Most of the stuff I learned in life can be more attributed to the school of “hard knocks” then it can be William Blount Highschool.

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