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Book Review: Why Don't Students Like School?
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Why Don't Students Like School?: Improving Classroom Instruction By Focusing On The Mind

By: Scott Aguila, City Year San Jose

In “Why Don’t Students Like School?,” the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham translates the research on learning into concrete applications for improving classroom instruction. Along the way, he knocks down shibboleths that are widely cherished among educators, with particular critical ammunition reserved for the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory of learning styles. Well-written and well-researched, Willingham’s book belongs in any teacher’s e-reader because it explains how to get better at teaching by describing both what to do and what not to do. It’s not a book about the brain; it’s a book aimed one level higher, at the mind, and intent on explaining its secrets to the layperson, in order to build a small yet secure bridge across the research-practice divide among scientists and educators.

Willingham neatly distills thirty years of cognitive science into nine principles of learning. These principles hold under a wide range of experimental conditions and are relevant to the work of teachers. More than empty platitudes, these principles give substantive advice to teachers by describing at a functional level how attention, memory, and learning work. But, instead of sweeping across each principle, I will focus my review on Willingham’s discussion of one aspect of human cognition: the fragile nature and frustrating limitations of working memory, where conscious thinking occurs. By focusing on just one part of Willingham’s book, I hope to give you a sense of the greater whole.

Teachers aim, among other things, to improve students’ thinking. But what is thinking? Willingham explains that thinking occurs in working memory, where information from both the environment and long-term memory is combined in novel ways to solve problems. For example, suppose you want to have dinner. Well, you need to gather information from your environment: the available plants and animals in the fridge, the various cooking ware in the drawers, the spices on the spice rack. But you also need to call on the information stored in your long-term memory: in particular, the various recipes you know. These recipes then join up with those food items in your working memory, where you think about the possible meals. You realize that you have chicken, olive oil, broccoli, and garlic, and that you know a recipe using those items. Congratulations, you will soon be enjoying Mediterranean-style fare tonight.

Unfortunately, working memory is fragile and limited. It’s a mental bottleneck that holds only limited amounts of information. If you try to juggle too many mental times at once, then your thinking will become increasingly prone to error. In the classroom, such cognitive unreliability might look like this. Imagine you ask your students to solve a long division problem. That’s a multi-step process (e.g. identify the divisor). It’s also a multi-step process that requires knowing math facts (e.g. 8 x 7); and, if the math is embedded in a word problem, then you also need to decode the words and understand what math it refers to. For a student whose grasp of the appropriate steps, math facts, and reading skills is shaky, it will quickly become cognitively burdensome to keep track of the overall arc of the problem. Thinking will break down.

But wait, there’s hope! Willingham describes two ways of overcoming the limitations of working memory. One way is to use practice to make certain cognitive processes automatic. For example, let’s return to the long division scenario. If you practice your times table so often that it becomes automatic, then you will be able to retrieve (say) “8 x 7” from long-term memory without having to stop and think about it. This will free space in working memory to think about executing the steps needed to solve it. Otherwise, you risk trying to recall the next step, solve the math fact, or sound out the words, in which case you’re likely to lose the scope and sense of the overall problem. 

Besides shrinking the space certain cognitive processes (e.g. retrieving math facts) occupies in working memory, you can also use the power of “chunking” to pack more information into the same amount of space provided by working memory. This means using your background knowledge to group related information into one meaningful unit or “chunk” of information. As a result, your working memory treats that chunk as just one tidy package, not several distinct mental items to keep track of. For example, suppose I ask you to memorize the string of letters, “thecatinthehatsatonthemat.” For the pre-literate child, that’s twenty five letters to memorize: simply too many items to hold in working memory. But, for you, a literate adult, the power of chunking can be used: you can use their knowledge of the alphabet to break the string of twenty five letters into only nine chunks, “The cat in the hat sat on the mat.” Now you only have nine chunks of information to remember, not twenty five discrete items. In this way, we all use our background knowledge about domains to chunk information in order to fit it all into working memory, where we can productively think about those chunks.

Overall, I highly recommend Willingham’s book. It’s substantive, helpful, and full of self-exemplification, partly because the organization of the chapters fits his own advice regarding teaching. You don’t just learn about the cognitive principles: you see the author taking his own advice and using them to inform how he presents the contents of his book.

Scott Aguila is serving as an AmeriCorps Member as a Team Leader for City Year San Jose after previously serving in 2013-2014 and 2012-2013.  He graduated from Davidson College with a degree in Philosophy.  When talking about his service, he's said it has been immensely rewarding to help students acquire the character, knowledge, and skills needed to become informed, happy, and successful citizens.  He looks forward to taking the educational practices he's learned at City Year to the classroom and to be a lifelong learner alongside his students.