Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel Willingham [Book Summary – Review]

“But I don’t want to go to school,” is the morning cry that may be heard all around the world. Since children and young adults have eventually been let down by educational institutions, this is a typical criticism. Not a need for curriculum or test reform, but rather something far more basic, is being discussed here.

You’ll see in these chapters that education has failed because, to put it simply, instructional strategies and course material have been developed with insufficient knowledge of the brain.

These chapters focus on how we’ve misinterpreted intelligence and the mechanisms involved in learning and acquiring memories.

These chapters will demonstrate how to use this scientific information practically to improve educational outcomes if you’re a parent or educator of any kind. Additionally, it’s not only about bettering the lives of children; instructors themselves are always learning new teaching techniques.

These chapters will teach you

  • the reasons why your brain dislikes thinking;
  • how many IQ points the typical Dutch military draftee increased over 30 years; and
  • why improved teaching doesn’t require a flashy smartboard?

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Chapter 1 – Humans aren’t that excellent at thinking, but we are fairly good at recognizing patterns.

Why do youngsters appear unable to put down their technological devices? Why don’t they use the internet as a resource for free knowledge instead of utilizing it to play foolish games?

Though this kind of stereotyping is very typical, it is utterly unjust. Instead, we should study a little bit more about how the brain works and why it causes young individuals to behave the way they do as adults and perhaps even as teachers or parents. We’ll be doing that right here. You’ll discover that making judgments is unnecessary.

The first unexpected realization is that thinking isn’t something our brain enjoys doing. Instead of everyday thinking, we’re referring to the more demanding, higher-level cognitive processes you need to read a challenging text or solve a challenging arithmetic issue. Just consider how difficult it may be to solve a riddle!

The human brain despises this type of cognitive process. It has a propensity to attempt to completely avoid it.

This type of active thinking is the cause since it not only takes a long time but also uses a lot of energy. That energy was undoubtedly better utilized elsewhere during the hunter-gatherer era of our early ancestors. Instead, the majority of human brains are devoted to functions like sight and movement, which were far more crucial for survival. We have excellent vision and mobility as a result. For example, a $5 calculator can perform math operations quicker than most people, yet no computer has yet developed the ability to traverse a rocky shoreline.

We, therefore excel at seeing and moving, but deep thought is not something that our brains particularly like doing. But pattern identification and spotting are our strong suits. Why? Well, energy plays a role in this as well. Having this ability allows us to swiftly evaluate events by comparing them to what we have already encountered rather than having to use up valuable mental resources every time one arises.

Consider how a baby learns to speak. Nobody is teaching them grammatical rules or elocution techniques while they are seated. Instead, infants naturally recognize linguistic patterns and associate them with certain contexts and things. Infants learn to produce a sound resembling “goodbye” when someone departs because of this, which is also how “mom” and “dad” got their names.

As we’ve seen, pattern identification is an excellent way to avoid thinking that uses a lot of energy. Memory, however, is a different cognitive strategy that prevents us from overtaxing our minds when brushing our hair.

Chapter 2 – There are two distinct forms of memory in humans.

Consider how much work it would be if you had to figure out where to cut and at what angle to hold the knife every time you sliced an onion. Fortunately, our brains have evolved in a way that enables us to store answers to previous difficulties in memory.

There are two types of memories that we have. The best way to conceptualize working memory is as a type of consciousness. Our surroundings provide direct inputs to us, and working memory processes the data pertinent to the current task. For instance, our working memory stores the digits when we are momentarily recalling a phone number or counting how many onions have been sliced.

Working memory has the very little capacity, nevertheless. Only seven objects can be held or processed at once. However, there is a benefit to this constraint. Can you picture having every single phone number you’ve ever seen forever ingrained in your memory?

Only a small portion of the objects in working memory get transferred to long-term memory. This is the long-term memory, the vast repository of information in the brain.

This transmission only takes place if the data is deemed significant enough.

The brain keeps knowledge in long-term memory, but we may not always be aware of it. The information is kept there until needed. It’s how we innately understand things like tigers’ stripes or our preference for red onions.

Recalling anything causes it to return to working memory, bringing it back into our awareness.

Computer RAM chips and hard drives are a good comparison for long-term and working memory. Machines store information required to perform processes in RAM, or random-access memory, but only for as long as is necessary. Hard drives, on the other hand, permanently store extremely critical data. Early computer scientists used the human brain as their model and created computers to replicate it since human memory is such an effective system for processing and storing information.

Chapter 3 – Learning is a highly contextualized process.

While difficult, learning German is not as difficult for a natural English speaker as, say, learning Japanese. How come? Given that they are both foreign languages, one would assume that learning them would be equally challenging. Unfortunately for English-speaking foreigners living in Japan, that’s not how the brain functions.

The fact is that your brain struggles to understand new information when it is presented to it completely; instead, it prefers to have some past contextual knowledge to which new information may be readily compared. As a result, it is challenging to establish connections and difficult to make knowledge stay when there is no contextual content to draw from.

Just focus on these phrases from the next paragraph:

It’s a straightforward yet crucial technique: You first sort things into several categories. Color coordination is a frequent method for accomplishing this, and depending on your situation, one group may be sufficient. The preparation process is over if you have to go because you lack the necessary facilities. But there is one important thing to remember: Don’t overdo it. Underfilling is always preferable to overfilling.

Did you figure out what was happening? You must have worked very hard at using your brain’s problem-solving skills to realize that these are instructions on how to operate a washing machine. And even if you hadn’t found the solution, it still would have been exhausting. That’s because you were unable to assign meaning to the statements since you lacked the required context.

When seen in that light, it becomes obvious how understanding the crucial function of context might aid instructors in strengthening their instruction.

They must first make sure that pupils have a solid understanding of the fundamental concepts in a certain field. Once these concepts are established, they will provide students’ minds with a perspective for any bigger issues they may encounter.

For instance, it would be better if pupils have mastered multiplication before teaching them how to calculate the diameter of a circle.

Second, having real-world examples to utilize as context is really helpful for students. It facilitates learning by providing individuals with a framework to which they may anchor more abstract concepts. For instance, calculating the area of a tabletop is considerably more relatable to students than calculating the areas of abstract forms on a hypothetical plane.

Chapter 4 – The foundation for achieving progressively difficult tasks is memorizing fact-based information.

Everybody enjoys watching films. Although the movie’s conclusion may be its greatest moment, nobody skips over one to get to it. That would negate the entire purpose. Any climax will either be worthless or, worse, incoherent if you jump right to the finish.

The same is true of education. Most educators desire for their pupils to grow in analytical and critical thinking abilities. This seems sensible given how crucial these abilities are. But before they can accomplish that, the students must get a solid grasp of the core ideas and ideas of the topic.

The process of chunking is essential for doing this. Our brains’ low working memory capacity is one of their main drawbacks. There is a solution, though: Complex reasoning tasks may be computed more quickly in working memory if factual information is “chunked,” or connected, in long-term memory.

Let’s see how this functions in real life. Imagine that you must learn the letters O C G N O N I T I by heart. You may either memorize the nine letters individually or arrange them to form the word “cognition” and memorize that. The information in this one word is the same as that in those nine letters, yet it only occupies one space in your working memory.

For memorizing facts, utilize the same method. As factual knowledge accumulates in long-term memory, the brain begins to link together different pieces of information.

Let’s say that pupils are learning about the Industrial Revolution. Understanding fundamental technical advancements and the nation that gave rise to them is the first step in trying to comprehend and assess the economic changes involved.

However, acquiring factual knowledge is difficult. It demands time and work. Although learning material by heart may seem laborious, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that there is no more effective technique to retain it.

Learning by repetition has another advantage. It entails that essential ideas become “automatic,” or established enough in the brain to not even require access to the working memory’s limited storage space.

Just consider how ineffective it would be if we had to memorize how to multiply each time!

Chapter 5 – Children’s learning processes are more similar than distinct.

You’ve heard someone identify as a tactile, visual, or auditory learner. In other words, people have a particular “channel” that they think they can most efficiently use to take in new information. Although it’s a strong concept, is it real?

This is one of the most pervasive myths in educational psychology. The notion is rarely supported by research. So don’t go blaming your lack of access to audiobooks as a child on your current lack of a Nobel prize!

Numerous studies have shown that there is no visible academic advantage when students are provided knowledge in their chosen method, whether it be visual, aural, or any other way. Nevertheless, the myth persisted, and for the past 50 years, it has influenced how education is practiced. Even more, the Western educational establishment has encouraged instructors to spend a great deal of time figuring out how students like to “channel” their learning.

When you consider it, the error is clear. Information is inserted into long-term memory by a variety of gateways, including auditory, visual, and tactile ones. The significance of the information in question is what matters most. No gateway—not even one that is more pleasant—boosts the intake of meaning.

This is not the same as claiming that all kids are alike or have talents that are indistinguishable from one another. Of course, some people will gravitate toward arithmetic, while others are voracious readers.

However, there is a practical lesson that educators can learn from this: teachers need to focus more on content than delivery.

Therefore, if you’re a teacher, quit spending your time on elaborate slide shows! It serves no purpose to have kids study by approaches that are not supported by science.

Any method of learning that is successful in the present, whether it be visual, aural, or tactile, aids pupils in understanding the meaning of the material being provided is acceptable.

For instance, there is no purpose in wasting time with colors and creating tricks to make the smartboard depict the phenomenon if students are learning about friction and Newton’s laws of motion. 

An instructor would do much better if they just described all the situations in actual life when these phenomena may be observed. This strategy requires less time to develop and is still an excellent doorway.

Chapter 6 – No one’s degree of intelligence is fixed at birth.

It was once widely believed that people were either athletically gifted or intellectually gifted from birth and that nothing could change it. These presumptions, meanwhile, have recently come under scrutiny. The argument between nature and nurture is now giving credit to nurture.

We now understand that both genetics and environment have a role in intelligence. The capability of the brain is the basis for intelligence. But more importantly, it has been established that the brain is remarkably changeable. This is not meant to discount the biological truth that infants have varying degrees of intellect at birth; rather, it is meant to emphasize that these degrees may be changed. However, this does call for consistent work.

But it goes farther than that.

It turns out that when assessing intellect, environmental factors have a much greater impact than genetic composition. It was believed up until the 1980s that environmental influences had a very small impact. Recent information has refuted such an assumption.

The average IQ has dramatically grown in numerous nations since the 1930s. For example, the average IQ of Dutch military draftees increased by 21 points between 1952 and 1982. The Flynn effect is the name given to this gradual rise in intelligence over the last few decades. It has the name of the psychologist from New Zealand, James Flynn, who first noticed the pattern.

We cannot adequately explain this transformation by citing biological causes. Simply put, the human gene pool does not mutate fast enough for a change of such magnitude to be realized in such a short amount of time. It is only possible that environmental influences are far more important than we initially thought in developing intellect.

And it’s not just in the area of IQ that environment may outweigh heredity. For example, amputees can learn to write with their less preferred hand. However, overcoming the predilection encoded in their DNA does need practice.

This misconception that intellect is unchangeable and determined by life’s lottery demotivates pupils in the real world.

Students need to be made aware that intellect may be elevated to refute this.

That’s where effective instruction comes in.

Chapter 7 – As with any complicated talent, teaching may be mastered with practice.

Students attend school to study. But it’s simple to forget that educators must follow suit.

Naturally, educational institutions prioritize student learning. The irony is that students will suffer if they don’t take the time to support instructors in their efforts to get better.

The minds of teachers and pupils are identical. That is to say when applied to both students and teachers, the same cognitive concepts are successful.

Teachers are under pressure from their schools to be experts in their fields. However, it’s easy to overlook the value of pedagogical content knowledge when doing that. Simply said, as a teacher, it is not enough to know mathematics alone; you also need to know the way to teach it.

It takes a lot of work to become an expert in pedagogy; explanatory, interpersonal, and conflict resolution abilities must all be in top shape. Not to mention the needed topic knowledge and pattern recognition!

Additionally, there is a genuine possibility of plateauing with teaching, just as with any other ability. When you reach a level that you are satisfied with, you just stop attempting to improve. Sadly, coasting frequently occurs unconsciously. 

Although you may wish to believe differently, instructors gain most of their abilities over the first five years of teaching. Little else alter after that. A 2005 research by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that instructors only significantly impacted pupils’ learning during the first two years of their employment.

A teaching culture that values feedback and growth throughout instructors’ careers is necessary to address this issue. The absence of feedback in the industry specifically harms teaching quality standards.

The fact that every teacher is isolated in her classroom and instructs by herself is in part the fault of the architecture of many educational institutions. 

Constructive criticism, both good and negative, is hindered by the fact that instructors are segregated from one another during school hours.

Fortunately, there is a fix. Colleagues can provide advice, particularly on those aspects of teaching style that is all too readily overlooked by those who are in the middle of doing it, if teachers record themselves teaching and share it with them.

There is a learning curve associated with teaching, just like there is while studying. Although it could seem like a lot of work, there are no limits if one has a basic understanding of how the brain works!

Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham Book Review

Because everyone engaged, including educational institutions, hasn’t completely grasped the fundamental cognitive concepts involved in learning, students dislike school. Working memory and long-term memory are both engaged. Pattern recognition and “chunking” information for long-term memory are the greatest learning techniques. It is important to avoid the working memory bottleneck. Furthermore, we should reject the idea that everyone has a certain learning “type” or that intelligence is only genetically determined. Therefore, we can guarantee that kids will learn a great deal more effectively by providing the appropriate context and information as well as ensuring sure instructors continue to learn. Who knows, kids could even begin to enjoy school!

Encourage the value of work

Make sure kids know that talent and intellect are not fixed at birth if you are in frequent touch with them, whether it be as a parent or in a mentoring capacity. Kids must realize they can do practically anything if they work hard enough and practice. Always keep in mind that piano virtuoso learns their muscle memory and harmonic knowledge.

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Savaş Ateş

I'm a software engineer. I like reading books and writing summaries. I like to play soccer too :) Good Reads Profile: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/106467014-sava-ate

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