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

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

As a birthday present to myself, I bought myself a used Kindle of eBay. Wow, why didn’t I do this before? It has revolutionised my time in lock down and vastly increased the amount of fiction and non-fiction I’m reading.

My first non-fiction read was this: “Why don’t students like School” by Daniel T Willingham.

Now this book didn’t really teach my anything I didn’t already know from keeping up with modern teaching theory, but it did allow me to refine and identify areas that would help improve my teaching, and planning.

My comments are in italics. The rest are quotes from the book. I would recommend reading it, especially if you are coming at Cognitive Science with little background knowledge.

My Notes:

This is the true nature of the learning, it isn’t alway in the classroom sat at desk being tidy and organised, and it definitely isn’t easy to see, hear or do.

“Mental processes are not isolated in the classroom.They all operate simultaneously, and they often interact in difficult-to-predict ways.”

Real learning is experiential, we have to experience the process of problem solving and then apply that method over and over again. The problem is when we come across a new problem. We can’t solve it as it isn’t what we have learned to do.

“Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.”

The idea of cognitive load and decision fatigue really comes into play here when we use the example of travelling, but it’s the same for learners who have language issues or struggle to access the learning.

“That’s one reason that traveling is so tiring: all of the trivial actions that at home could be made on autopilot require your full attention.”

We need knowledge to use skills. Do I explicitly teach the knowledge that students need? Do I have expectations (mistakenly) that students know how to do everything?

“Procedural knowledge, which is your knowledge of the mental procedures necessary to execute tasks.”

Do I provide the environment and the knowledge in an easily accessible way to allow the process of learning to occur?

“For problems to be solved, the thinker needs adequate information from the environment, room in working memory, and the required facts and procedures in long-term memory.”

Teaching CS or just teaching in general is just this:
“Overloads of working memory are caused by such things as multi-step instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept to new material (unless the concept is quite simple).The solution to working memory overloads is straightforward: slow the pace, and use memory aids such as writing on the blackboard that save students from keeping too much information in working memory.”

Planning GOOD questions is key in teaching, the correct question is like an itch that can’t be scratched. You want to get it all wrapped up but it leads to scratch somewhere else. Over and over.

“Our curiosity is provoked when we perceive a problem that we believe we can solve.What is the question that will engage students and make them want to know the answer?”

If we don’t teach students the foundation knowledge that they need to access the curriculum, then we are setting them up to struggle.

“The fact is that they are behind the others, and giving them work that is beyond them is unlikely to help them catch up, and is likely to make them fall still further behind.”

Teach the facts, knowledge and truths that students need to know then build on that to eventually develop the skills they need.
“Factual knowledge must precede skill.”

Willingham’s definition of thinking:

“I defined thinking as combining information in new ways.”

Using an external source of information like a Knowledge organiser allows the learner to break that information down, process or use it, combine it and then store it in long term memory. Though this is only part of the process of learning.

“Chunking works only when you have applicable factual knowledge in long-term memory.”

What’s needed is the correct vocabulary, knowledge organiser, diagram or coding of the information, then comprehension (understanding) can start to take place:

“Four ways that background knowledge is important to reading comprehension: (1) it provides vocabulary; (2) it allows you to bridge logical gaps that writers leave; (3) it allows chunking, which increases room in working memory and thereby makes it easier to tie ideas together; and (4) it guides the interpretation of ambiguous sentences.”

If we don’t know basic knowledge then even play is impossible, if we don’t learn to stack and balance things how do we make toy towers? Children need to learn to play, so they need to learn everything else that comes after.

“Knowledge is more important, because it’s a prerequisite for imagination, or at least for the sort of imagination that leads to problem solving, decision making, and creativity.”

We can’t expect students to analyse scenario statements about supermarkets and islands without teaching them the facts about the the subject that they need to be able to know the answer, then the skills to effectively answer the question.
“One cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge.”

Teaching as storytelling.

“The four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character.”

Relate knowledge to these 4 C’s. What is the effect of the problem, what is the problem, what are the issues, and who is involved. Even just framing theory in this way makes it more engaging, more rounded, than just Fact A, then Fact B.

“The material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question.”

Which is why making the question clear is so important.

Key Points:

“Review Each Lesson Plan in Terms of What the Student Is Likely to Think About
Design Assignments So That Students Will Unavoidably Think About Meaning
Don’t Be Afraid to Use Mnemonics
Try Organizing a Lesson Plan Around the Conflict (question)

The material we want students to know is the answer to a question—and the question is the conflict.”

A key concept for Computer Science is Abstraction:

Willingham states:
“Abstraction is the goal of schooling.”

So thinking about the knowledge we want student to learn as layers, and adding to or removing layers to build or reveal the key knowledge.
One problem is this:

“The mind does not care for abstractions. The mind prefers the concrete.”

but for students (they):

“they understand new ideas (things they don’t know) by relating them to old ideas (things they do know).”

Again using a knowledge organiser, coded diagram, mind map or concept map here is vital as:

“Understanding new ideas is mostly a matter of getting the right old ideas into working memory and then rearranging them—making comparisons we hadn’t made before, or thinking about a feature we had previously ignored.”

Students demonstrate shallow knowledge or learning when:

“They can understand the concept only in the context that was provided.”

Students demonstrate deep knowledge or learning when the task allows the:

“student to apply the knowledge in many different contexts, to talk about it in different ways, to imagine how the system as a whole would change if one part of it changed”

Once we have someone an abstract principle say the benefits of LAN’s, we expect them to transfer that principle to other scenarios, like WAN’s.

“If someone understands an abstract principle, we expect they will show transfer.”

Surface Structure to a problem – this is the problem details. Not that important to understanding how to solve the problem when transferred to anther domain.

Deep structure is the understanding of the underlying problem.

“Experience helps students to see deep structure, so provide that experience via lots of examples.”

Mastery and skill development

“Three important benefits: it reinforces the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced skills, it protects against forgetting, and it improves transfer.”

Benefits of practice.

“Automatic processes require little or no working memory capacity.”
“Learn it until its automatic.”
“realistic goal for students is knowledge comprehension.”

final take away:

“If you want to increase your intelligence, you have to challenge yourself.That means taking on tasks that are a bit beyond your reach, and that means you may very well fail, at least the first time around. Fear of failure can therefore be a significant obstacle to tackling this sort of challenging work, but failure should not be a big deal.”

To Read:

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset:The new psychology of success. New York : Random
Deary, I. J. (2001). Intelligence: A very short introduction.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow:The psychology of optimal experience.
Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works.


self-serving bias.


You can find taped classrooms in several places on the Internet, for example, http://www.videoclassroom.org and http://www.learner.org

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