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by Daniel T. Willingham
Jossey-Bass, 2010
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D. on Jun 21st 2011

Why Don't Students Like School

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 is a book that advocates research-based answers to questions about student learning that not only instructors, but also students, parents and any person who is marginally interested in instruction and learning may, at one time or another, ponder.  Willingham is an accomplished cognitive scientist whose goal is to link knowledge acquired through the application of the scientific method, which generally appears to non-experts as a bit esoteric and rather distant from real life, to learning and teaching in authentic educational settings. Naturally, a curious, but critical reader may ask whether knowledge acquired mostly from experimental laboratory research can be used to understand learning and instruction in schools across the country. Although such research tends to eliminate complexity and variety from real-life experiences of instruction and acquisition by isolating some factors of interest and keeping others, deemed less critical, constant, Willingham has demonstrated convincingly that knowledge acquired through this type of research not only has real-life applications, but also can enhance our understanding of everyday instruction and acquisition.  Indeed, one of the main points that emerges from his book is that experiences where knowledge is to cross human minds exhibit some basic, unified features, irrespective of whether they occur in a classroom or outside. Of course, Willingham is only one of a cadre of cognitive scientists who actively seek applications for findings that in the past have remained the realm of selected clusters of experts.  Yet, he is one of the few willing and exquisitely capable of communicating pedagogical applications of cognitive science to large audiences in a transparent and unassuming language.

The book is structured in nine, well-written and enticing chapters, each with a question serving as the title and a cognitive principle providing the organizing theme.  Every chapter contains anecdotes that illustrate a conundrum expressed in the form of a question (e.g., ‘Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?’), the cognitive principle the author wishes to demonstrate (e.g., ‘We understand new things in the context of things we already know and most of what we know is concrete’) and advice on how to address the conundrum to ensure learning (as defined by the objectives of the instructor).   The book is a solid, unified narrative, quite difficult for any individual to stop reading even in the face of depleting attentional resources! Chapters are harmoniously integrated.  Those that follow usually contain references to and reminders of critical information discussed in preceding text, whereas earlier chapters contain alluring bits of information pertaining to later text, making the reader feel that something even more interesting is soon to be divulged in the upcoming text, perhaps in the form of a question for which an answer has been sought for years without avail.  

If the structure of Why don’t students like school? is ideal for sustained reading, what may be the intrinsic value of its content for the average reader?  Although the author’s intent is to answer questions that haunt every instructor, rendering the content of the book intuitively relevant, its genuine value resides in the extent to which the author succeeds in applying well-known concepts and principles of cognition to practical issues of learning and instruction.   Although occasionally, the author’s portrayal of concepts is rather predictable, their applications, mostly through anecdotes, are reliably sound, entertaining, and creative.   Several concepts and related applications may not surprise the average reader, whereas others may trigger autonomous explorations of feasible applications to one’s discipline or area of interest. The only section of each chapter that appears to be rather pedestrian is the one entitled ‘Implications for the classroom’ whereby critical information is reiterated and obvious suggestions regarding feasible applications are summarized.   Most of these suggestions have been presented previously in a much richer and engaging text or can be easily speculated, making this section with a few exceptions an example of the cognitive principle that too much guidance and reiteration, concentrated in a small timeframe, can render a well-argued point of view rather unappealing.  

Although not difficult to foresee that the value of Why don’t students like school? will be recognized by those in the teaching profession, will its value elude others, including students? I would argue that the format of the book and its content can make its reading a worthwhile experience not only for students who may be asking themselves specific questions about their instructors’ dull and ineffective pedagogy, but also for all who may be curious about learning and instructions in a variety of informal settings. This claim relies on the recognition that when the author introduces a concept and/or a model of cognitive processing, his narrative is transparent and straightforward, making acquisition of information unencumbered by the potential unfamiliarity of the material and, consequently, expanding the audience of suitable readers. For those interested in increasing their knowledge of a specific learning principle, Willingham offers a bibliography at the end of each chapter, which can serve as a guide, albeit limited in scope. Even without expertise in cognitive science, Willingham’s writing can take the reader on a journey of self-discovery of one’s mind’s abilities and propensities for learning, a journey that is likely to be punctuated by ‘why didn’t I think of it myself?’ moments and by the recognition that a few beliefs about learning and teaching popularized in the media, such as the relevance of learning styles, may need to be downgraded to a fluke.  All things considered, Why don’t students like school? is a narrative likely to realize the author’s belief that ‘teaching is an act of persuasion’ in each of his readers.  


© 2011 Maura Pilotti




 Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York