Book Review: Willingham's "Why Don't Students Like School"

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If you're hungry for a dollop of good sense about classroom teaching, check out this book. Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist (and in the interest of disclosure, a member of NCTQ's advisory board), applies what's known about the workings of the mind to questions that challenge real educators in school settings. His answers, though not simple, are written clearly and conversationally with all the possible buzzwords swatted away.


Willingham comes down on different sides of more than one partisan educational divide. He explodes the Rousseauian notion that children are natural learners, contending instead that thinking is hard work and we, including children, often avoid it. On the other hand, his picture of effective teaching emphasizes the ability to motivate students. If that seems a little fluffy compared to a teacher's academic or organizational skills, it's no less important, according to Willingham.

There's plenty for hard-headed traditionalists to like, including the author's insistence on the need to memorize facts and practice skills to really learn. He argues, too, that attempts to make content "relevant" to students are largely a waste of time. But devotees of The Bell Curve, perhaps the most politically incorrect book of the 1990s, won't be happy with Willingham. He takes what he describes as the current majority view among cognitive scientists that genes likely influence intelligence less than environment and certainly less than was once thought. As a result, he concludes that effective teachers not only set high standards, they convey to students their belief that the students can meet them.

The final chapter targets teachers and draws less on cognitive findings, which narrows its interest for the general reader. But for teacher readers, Willingham's straightforward program to improve instruction might have the appeal of a glass of clear water--especially in comparison to the sludge that is so often "professional development."

Two criticisms of the book. One, its title ("Why Don't Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom) is awkward and misleading. And two, the design is amateurish (abnormally small print, oddly old-fashioned borders and flourishes, and photos that serve little purpose). Leading educational publisher Jossey-Bass surely could have done better by this fine book.