Why don’t students like school?

The title of this excellent book is perhaps a little misleading – there’s not much in it about why students don’t like school; it’s actually a concise list of nine principles about how the brain learns that can be applied in the classroom by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.  The result is a practical and easily readable introduction into research based cognitive psychology, along with practical suggestions for applying the theory to the classroom.

In a nutshell, here are Willingham’s nine key points:

1. People are naturally curious, but not naturally good thinkers: unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.

We enjoy mental activity and solving problems bring pleasure, but only when the problem is appropriately challenging – not too simple, and not so difficult that it is frustrating.  Appropriate levels of difficulty will engage students provided they have access to enough information to solve the problem.  Cognitive conflict is a great way to stimulate thinking. (If 1/2 plus 1/4 really does = 2/6 (a pretty common assumption amongst those who are struggling with fractions), then why is the answer (2/6) smaller than 1/2  ? ). It’s also good developing a good metacognitive skill – self check that the answer makes sense.

2. Factual knowledge must precede skill.

Given that memorization currently has appalling connotations, this is an anathema to many teachers. Yet the bottom line is that in some areas of learning require basic foundation knowledge such as counting, the alphabet, specialized vocabulary, and chemical symbols, and this foundation knowledge is acquired  through memorization. Yes, learning is about thinking, but we can’t think in a knowledge vacuum. Sometimes the thinking process needs to be seeded with basic information so that we have something to think about. Although there may be many opportunities to make factual knowledge more available (i.e. more memorable) by linking it to existing knowledge,  sometimes the only way to acquire the basic factual knowledge is to memorize it through practice and repetition.  The good news is that the more factual information a student has readily available, then not only is it more likely it is that reading comprehension will improve, but more hooks become available for linking new information to existing knowledge.  In other words, the more prior knowledge you have, the easier it is it acquire additional knowledge. While deep knowledge is better than superficial knowledge, superficial knowledge is better than no knowledge at all.  Critical thinking draws heavily on prior knowledge, and developing a deeper understanding can help consolidate superficial knowledge through providing  further practice opportunities. The good news is that not all new knowledge has to be deliberately memorized. If enough hooks are available then simple exposure to information is enough for that factual knowledge to be acquired. All of which leads nicely into rule 3……

3. Memory is the residue of thought.

You’re more likely to remember something you’ve been thinking about.  The flip side of this rule is that if you don’t pay attention, you’re not likely to remember.  The more you think about something, the more likely you are to remember it, but this  requires deliberate focused thinking to be effective.  Repetition without thinking is not as effective. Repetition does work if you do it often enough, but memorizing by thinking is a better alternative when it is available.

Trying to predict which topics a student might find interesting is no guarantee that  a student will engage in the topic enough to think about what is to be learned. However connecting the information in a story format is often very successful, presumably because the typical components of a story – Cause, Conflict, Complications and Character, trigger responses to find relationships between characters and events,  anticipate solutions, and  require thinking about what needs to be learned.

Discovery learning has the advantage that it does require thinking, but it needs to be carefully managed to ensure that students learn the intended lesson and don’t inadvertently learn misinformation that can be difficult to correct later.

Willingham has a couple of interesting little tricks in this section – for example memorizing a list of unrelated words is easier if you are given the task of ranking the words in the order that you like them, because it forces more active thinking about the words.

4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.

Abstract thinking requires restructuring existing  knowledge. Deep understanding involves finding relationships between new knowledge and existing knowledge, and frequently these relationships will include analogies, examples and comparisons. Transferring knowledge can be challenging since our recall of knowledge tends to focus on the details that were present when the knowledge was  first acquired.

5. It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.

The more you practice recalling information, the better you’ll become at recalling that information, and the longer you’ll be able to recall the knowledge. There’s an added bonus to practice that’s not so well recognized – practice is a significant contributor to knowledge transfer.  Practice (revision) needs to be spaced out over a period of time, but this this practice can be obtained by using retrieval of the knowledge being practiced to build more advanced knowledge.

6. Cognition early in training is not like cognition late in training.

Beginning chess players focus on how to move the pieces, experienced chess players focus on controlling the squares in the middle of the board and master chess players consider a vast knowledge of previously encountered positions and game outcomes to decide their next playing strategy. The level of thinking and understanding at each of these three playing levels is quite different. Similiarly  the budding mathematician may work with the same numbers as a mathematics graduate, but will not have the same insight until a similar amount of knowledge has been acquired.

Experts draw on existing deep knowledge, and are able to process more information at a time because they have more practiced knowledge available. Novices are still trying to acquire knowledge,  have more difficulty seeing the big picture, and are more likely to make mistakes. Experts get to be experts because they have practiced more.  As a result, they are able to take shortcuts that are not available to novices. Compare a beginning reader reading one word at a time with an advanced reader using fewer eye movements per line and scanning several words at a time.  A novice cannot usefully copy the methods used by an expert until they have developed an appropriate  inventory of readily recalled knowledge.

(I can think of some exceptions to this rule, though they are probably more metacognitive than cognitive.  Effective earning skills are often unconsciously developed by good students and not used by struggling students. Explicitly teaching skills such as self-questioning for understanding, paraphrasing and summarizing can be beneficial to these students – more on this in rule 8. )

7. Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.

OK – some people are better at remembering visual details, some people are better at remembering auditory details etc., and according to popular theory, people learn best when instruction matches their cognitive style.  Teachers design appropriately complex lessons to cater to different learning styles, based on the prediction that visual learners will learn better from predominantly visual material, and auditory learners will learn best from auditory material. For example,  the auditory learner learns new vocabulary by hearing the new words and their descriptions, while the visual learner matches the written words with images. Although this theory is well entrenched in teaching pedagogy, and 90% of teachers believe that learning styles can influence learning,  numerous researchers have consistently failed to confirm these predictions. The overwhelming lack of supporting evidence suggests that the visual-auditory-kinesthetic learner theory is more myth than reality. However presenting information in different ways can benefit all students, as it is an effective way of regaining attention. (See rule 3 – we remember what we think about.)

8. Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

This harks back to the old nature-nurture debate, with the assumption that intelligence is basically genetics, but can be tweaked a few points by environment.  However average national IQ in a number of countries rose from 100 in 1932 to 113 in 1978, far more than an assumption that IQ is largely genetic can accommodate. It seems that belief about intelligence is also significant – those students who believe they can improve their results by trying harder are more likely to improve, while these students who believe that their results are due to ability rather than effort are less likely to try.  This certainly seems consistent with the argument that intelligence tests measure what is already learned, rather than the ability to learn.  Teachers need to be careful to praise effort rather than ability, and teach slower students that hard work pays off.  It pays off because practice builds proficiency (rule 5) and the more you know, the more you can learn (rule 2).  Teacher expectancy has a considerable impact on student ability.

9. Teaching, like any cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

The challenge here is that it’s hard to accurately critique your own teaching, yet teaching is often an isolated experience with each teacher in a separate room providing little opportunity for feedback. One suggestion is  videotaping yourself and then sharing that video with a colleague.

As teachers, if we are going to provide quality teaching,  we need to have a thorough and contemporary understanding of how the brain learns. This knowledge provides an evidence based rationale for selecting appropriate teaching methods and developing effective lessons. “Why Don’t Children Like School” by Daniel Willingham summarizes current cognitive theory  for teachers so well that this book deserves a place on every teacher’s bookshelf.


  1. This is a great post. Thank you for this information. It is amazing what knowledge is out there about the brain and how we “work”. If only education would REALLY take a look at this research and process how much it can affect our teaching practices. It’s a good thing that many of us educators are getting this info, processing it and sharing it. I look forward to learning more!

  2. [...] Review of one of my favorite reads from this past summer. Daniel Willingham’s book “Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom” [...]

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