How Students Learn: A Review of Why Don’t Students Like School

Cognitive psychologists, the same professionals who create SAT test questions, have learned more about the workings of the human brain over the last 25 years, than the preceding 3,000 years. More interestingly, according to Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist who currently teaches at the University of Virginia, and is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School, there are actually nine principles absolutely “fundamental to the mind’s operation that …do not change as circumstances change.” (p. 1, Why Don’t Students Like School, Daniel Willingham, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 2009) He serves up these principles, giving each its own chapter.

Some of these principles, admittedly, sound intuitive. The first is people are, by nature, curious. What prevents them from pursuing their curiosities effectively, is most are not ‘good thinkers’. People become discouraged easily (especially if they pursue an elusive concept, and cannot easily imagine where the answer lies.)  Another is that children are more alike than different in their approach to learning.  This principle directly challenges Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences; Mr. Gardner’s eight separate ‘intelligences’ (i.e. some students are more athletic or musical and prefer learning that emphasizes such ‘intelligences’) are considered more ‘talents,’ and are not necessarily better means of learning; these principles are not without controversy. In any case, the two principles we want to explore in a bit more depth are that one must first gain knowledge of facts before one gains a related skill, and that intelligence can be changed through hard work.

Cognitive scientists are convinced that factual knowledge must precede the development of a meaningful skill. Dr. Willingham cites an example to make this point.  A student needs to have a reasonably broad vocabulary to understand the meaning of an essay or speech. Thinking involves “combining information in new ways,” which means you must have something to combine in order to think well. That something is factual knowledge.  Reading comprehension further confirms this insight. A student’s comprehension improves dramatically when she has background knowledge of the subject.  Where then does a student go to improve vocabulary and gain new ideas and insights?  Though the digital world is quite alluring, generally it does not generate inquiry or pose new ideas. The best source for learning is still books, newspapers, and magazines (p.35 Ibid.)

Is general intelligence (referred to as ‘g’ in the book) genetic, or a product of environment? Cognitive scientists confirm both nature and nurture factor into ‘g’, The book uses studies on identical twins to unravel the mystery of “g” development. What it found is that genetic propensities will draw a student to certain types of experiences (height will probably lead to playing basketball), and that it’s these experiences that will build ‘g’. In short, a lot depends on environment. “Intelligence is malleable. It can be improved.” (p.139 Ibid.)  Attitude is, therefore, a big factor in a person’s learning process. Many students when told they’re bright don’t want to sacrifice this perception by ever being wrong, and this can be extremely detrimental to learning. Only by constantly challenging herself can a student ever grow intellectually. It’s essential, consequently, for parents and teachers to reward hard work, and never dwell on the intuitive intelligence of a student: complimenting a student on her intelligence is often counterproductive.

Though portions of the book are a bit dry, somewhat didactic, and contain too many pictures of celebrities (to, I guess, sugarcoat some of the content), just reading about nine surefire principles that give us direction on how the mind works is useful. Dr. Willingham supplies down to earth procedures for implementing these principles into the learning process. That alone warrants a read. Just exploding the myth that native intelligence always trumps a mediocre mind makes the book worthy reading. After all, the hard working dedicated, yet mediocre underdog who overcomes those innately superior is at the very foundation of the American Dream; it’s good that it is a principle.