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200 of 207 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Neceesary and Helfpful Shattering of Some Education Myths.
If you are a teacher, like myself, you have doubtless been inundated by advice about teaching to multiple intelligences, active (rather than passive) learning, teaching students to think rather than memorize facts, etc. If so, then you can't afford to pass up this book, which will provide a very helpful guide as to why some of these well-intentioned ideas are wrong, and...
Published on April 21, 2009 by Kevin Currie-Knight

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64 of 95 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed Bag: some insights but advocates outdated practices
Every aspect of education policy is being hotly debated right now. From national politics, the role of local boards, the effectiveness of school administrators, influence of teachers' unions, teaching performance, standardized testing, funding, etc. Every aspect is being widely debated, except perhaps the most important: that many students just don't like school. This can...
Published on February 23, 2011 by Luke Tuor


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200 of 207 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Neceesary and Helfpful Shattering of Some Education Myths., April 21, 2009
This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
If you are a teacher, like myself, you have doubtless been inundated by advice about teaching to multiple intelligences, active (rather than passive) learning, teaching students to think rather than memorize facts, etc. If so, then you can't afford to pass up this book, which will provide a very helpful guide as to why some of these well-intentioned ideas are wrong, and what it means for you as a teacher.

Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? is a book applying findings of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Sound a lot like Eric Jensen and his wildly popular book Teaching With the Brain in Mind? Well, unlike Jensen - who educators hear a lot about - Willingham is a PhD in cognitive psychology (while Jensen, who has a bachelors in English, is "working towards" a PhD from an online university, while making his real living as a motivational speaker). Long and short: Willingham is the real deal and I move to suggest that this book infinitely deserves more popularity amongst educators than anything Jensen has written.

Willingham's basic theme is that, despite everything you've heard, nothing works to increase student ability like factual learning and practice. In fact, one of his first ideas is to point out that what seperates the excellent student (or adult) from those performing less well is their ability to recall facts. The more facts you know about your subject, the more you can understand your subject because of significantly less energy spent on fact recall or retention. With facts learned to automaticity, more time can be spent on higher-order concept learning, and once that becomes automatic....etc.

While that may sound mundane, think of how many times you as a teacher have heard the idea of "rote memorization" and "regurgitation of fact" denegrated. Of course, Willingham is not advocating the strawman position that teachers do nothing but drill, drill, drill and enforce memorization of text passages. (No one actually holds that position!) What he reminds us, though, is that the critical thinking we hear so much about teaching our kids simply CANNOT happen without giving kids the requisite background info that must be employed to think critically. (One cannot critically reflect on whether the revolutionary war was justified without some big factual understanding of Colonial American and Empirial Britian, for example.)

Another big idea in educaiton that Willingham works to dispel is the idea that we all have different learning styles - auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Cognitive science, in fact, has shown the opposite: with minor variation, we all learn very similarly. While I may have a better memory for visual phemonena than you (who may be better at remembering sounds), we remember IDEAS not through the media in which they were delivered, but by...thinking about them. When memorizing words and definitions, we are not being asked to memorize sounds or visuals, but ideas, and the fact that I am an auditory or visual learner does nothing to predict what presentation method will help me memorize the best. (The amount I studied, of course, will.)

I don't want to give the impression that Willingham's book is about bashing education icons and maxims. It is not It is a book for teachers designed to bring up ideas we may not have thought about, and to suggest how to apply these ideas to our classrooms. Each chapter is focused around a question ("Is Drilling Worth It?" "Why is it So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?") and gives a detailed, but engaging, answer. At the end of each chapter, the author makes several concrete suggestions for how the answer can shape how we teach as well as reccomendations for further readings.

All in all, this is one of the single best education books I have read, and cannot wait to share it with fellow educators. As mentioned, I sincerely hope that this book becomes as widely devoured as those by Eric Jensen and Howard Gardner. Willingham offers a valuable and very constructive counterpoint, especially to Jensen's "brain based ways of learning."
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218 of 228 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why Don't They Teach This Stuff in Ed School?, March 20, 2009
This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
Factual knowledge must precede skill. Rote learning and memorization are valuable teaching strategies. Teaching to "multiple intelligences," "learning styles," and individual student interests is a waste of time. Is this really a cognitive psychologist talking?

The answer is yes, and Dr. Willingham should be knighted for flouting some of the most persistent lies about what constitutes "best practice" in the classroom these days. I just attended the ASCD's national conference in Florida last week, and while there was much blathering about brain research, teaching to the "whole child," and professional learning communities (the latest cult movement among education bureaucrats), there was precious little discussion about substantive teaching. In just 165 pages, Dr. Willingham presents more useful information than I've managed to glean in ten years of teacher-training, and he does so in a user-friendly, non-dogmatic style that can be read in one sitting.

Most useful are the nine organizing principles, which are both memorable and quotable (like any smart rhetorician, Willingham begins with his most startling fact: the brain is designed not to help us think, but rather to help us avoid thinking), the quick lists of classroom implications at the conclusion of each chapter, and the bibliographical citations categorized by "less technical" and "more technical." Rather than using cognitive research to justify some hotly promoted fad or gimmick, Dr. Willingham presents the most consistent research findings, all of which tend to confirm things that the best and most experienced teachers already know to be true--e.g. the effectiveness of using narratives to dramatize and illustrate important concepts, a "best practice" that's been around since at least the time of Christ.

In the current professional culture of education, searching for honest information about cognitive psychology--that is, information free of commercial or ideological bias--is like searching for a fast-food restaurant that doesn't use trans-fat. Thanks to Dr. Willingham for delivering the goods.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Facts, Facts, Facts, July 8, 2009
This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
Every once in a while, an empirical study comes along that provides solid evidence against one of those Constructivist practices that some of us whose thoughts on education come more from actual practice than from education theory have often been skeptical about. There is, for example, Jennifer Kaminski's Ohio State study, which suggests that too much of a focus on "real-world" math obscures the underlying mathematics, such that students are unable to transfer concepts to new problems.

Dan Willingham's book Why Don't Students Like School presents a whole bunch of these experimental results. Together, they challenge the notions that:

1. Students need to learn inquiry, argumentation, and higher-level thinking *rather than* tons of facts.
2. Integrating art into other subjects enhances learning; so does integrating computer technology.
3. Children learn best through self-guided discovery.
4. Drill is kill. Multiple strategies in a given lesson are better than a single strategy practiced multiple times.
5. Students learn best when constructing their own knowledge.
6. The best way to prepare students to become scientists and mathematicians is to teach them to solve problems the way scientists and mathematicians do.

The empirical data that Willingham cites show that, in fact:

1. Factual knowledge, lots of it, is a prerequisite to higher-level thinking.
2. Students are most likely to remember those aspects of a lesson that they end up thinking about the most. Corollary: Incorporating art or computer technology into another subject may sometimes cause students to think about the art or the technology more than the lesson content, such that they don't retain the latter.
3. Discovery learning should be reserved for environments where feedback about faulty strategies is immediate: "If students are left to explore ideas on their own," Willingham writes, they may "remember incorrect 'discoveries' as much as they will remember the correct ones."
4. In Willingham's words, "it is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task," or master underlying, abstract concepts, "without extended practice."
5. Unlike experts in a field, "students are ready to comprehend but not create knowledge."
6. Novices don't become experts by behaving like experts do. "Cognition early in training," Willingham writes, "is fundamentally different from cognition late in training."

Of course, Willingham could be making all this up. But consider just one of his empirical claims:
"Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts... The very processes that teachers care about the most--critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving--are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long term memory..."

This is a strong statement that could easily be debunked by anyone who knows the empirical literature. There are plenty of highly articulate, outspoken people out there who don't like what Willingham has to say, but I haven't seen a single critical review that contradicts his empirical claims.

Of course, if all that matter in life are inquiry, argumentation, and "higher-level" thinking *rather than* lots and lots of facts, one can say whatever one wants to about Why Children Don't Like School.
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, practical book on how to optimize teaching, April 8, 2009
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This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
Teachers and parents: Imagine you could sit down with a cognitive scientist and ask him to explain how students' brains learn, so that you could better teach them. Dan Willingham has written a book which achieves that very effect.

In an engaging and conversational style, the author brings cognitive science results to bear on our "common knowledge" about teaching, and turns our common assumptions upside down. For instance, the brain is not designed to think. Furthermore, the popular concept of visual-auditory-kinesthetic learners has no basis in fact.

Dr. Willingham explains cognitive research findings, and discusses how teachers can practically apply these results in the classroom. He peppers his book with illustrations and real life examples, which prevent the material from coming across as dry.

Some of the most profound ideas come in the final chapters: we should not praise a child for being "smart", but rather praise effort. Why? Because intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. Children who are slow learners can often overcome shortcomings through harder effort. This has important implications for both teachers and parents.

He also gives practical advice for improving your teaching [because, like intelligence, teaching skill--and performance--can be improved with practice]. A great example is to find another teacher to work with, and videotape yourselves in the classroom. Then, you can both analyze teaching performance (in a supportive way).

For anyone who is interested in becoming a better teacher, or for parents who are interested in having their children learn optimally, I highly recommend this book. I am already buying copies for friends!
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52 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Must-Read Book for Teachers and Parents, March 9, 2009
This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? is a terrific book. He makes the research on how students think and learn easy to understand. The chapter on memory would be helpful to anyone, and the chapter on increasing intelligence through hard work is heartening. He also settles an old debate in education about whether to teach content or skills by showing that we have to do both because critical thinking depends on knowledge.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Through a Brain Darkly, September 25, 2009
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This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist, aims this book at teachers, parents, and anyone else curious about what works, what doesn't work, what should be taught, and what shouldn't be taught by educators. To an experienced teacher, most of his findings are reaffirming. Some, however, are news and go against "accepted educational pedagogy" (quotes to show that most educators know that "accepted" is an inside joke of sorts in our business). The nine principles Willingham forwards in this book, in his own words, are as follows:

1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
3. Memory is the residue of thought.
4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
5. Proficiency requires practice.
6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

Willingham devotes a chapter to each principle, delving into what you should know about the students and what the most important classroom implication is for teachers. Number Two highlights the importance of background knowledge and how much of a drag it is on students who lack it. Number Five defends the old-school prescription of practice, practice, practice, but asterisks it with "without boring the students." And the biggest surprise (to me) is Number Seven, which basically says that knowledge of students' learning styles is a lot of hooey. "Lesson content, not student differences," should drive decisions on teaching, says Willingham. So much for Gardner's Intelligences, etc.

Overall, an interesting read, if at times repetitive. One distraction was the small font used to print this book. Why? Also, some teachers may feel that the bulk of the book merely reaffirms what they've already learned in the trenches. So be it. It's still good to see the experts reaffirming your practices based on the latest research on the brain.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic, interesting, and useful book, April 21, 2009
This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
This book is a must-read for teachers, school administrators, parents, really anyone who cares about helping children learn. Willingham is an expert in this field and he writes in a very easy-to-read style. He has combined these two strengths to write a book that answer questions every teacher has asked many times. And, unlike most cognitive psychology books, Willingham's explanations include real suggestions that teachers can use right away to help students learn better and enjoy school more. Teachers will return to this book again and again as they navigate challenges in their own classrooms. As a parent and college professor myself, I have already used several of the ideas in the book! I plan to purchase a copy of this book for every teacher I know.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you are in any way attached to K-12 education, read this book, May 10, 2009
This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
This is one of the most practical and powerful books for K-12 education that I have read in years. As a middle school principal and part-time graduate professor of education, I have had the opportunity to read tons of K-12 literature and work with hundreds of K-12 educators. This book struck a chord with me, and I have already ordered copies for my staff for next year.

This book is the perfect companion to Marzano's What Works. Marzano documents specific, research-based instructional strategies that can help teachers improve the quality of learning in their classrooms; Willingham's book makes clear the cognitive processes that make some classroom approaches more successful than others. Every couple pages of Willingham's book, I would stop and say to myself "Wow, that just makes sense!" This book clears through the jargon and theoretical clutter that has taken hold in so many of the corners of the K-12 education space, providing simple, logical, scientific explanations for the learning process. If you work in K-12 education, if you have a child in a K-12 school, or if you're just interested in understanding how learning works (or should work), read this book.

Parry Graham
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Brain Research" for Teachers!, March 20, 2010
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Ron Coia (Portland, OR United States) - See all my reviews
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I get tired of hearing the phrase, "Brain research shows..." to prove whatever point teachers are trying to show at the time. Whether it is about the importance of play, the use of movies, standing on your head before a test, or studying on the toilet, educators pull these three words and throw them down on the table like the trump card they've been saving to illuminate a point. The problem is that most teachers, including me, have no idea about brain research or even where to begin. Because of this, I sought to find a book to offer a basic understanding for dum-dums like me.

The subtitle of this book is, "A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom." This is a better explanation for the information, as I still don't know why students don't like school (perhaps it has something to do with me!). I suppose I could sum up the book as follows:

1. People are naturally curious.
2. Teachers create "problems" far too easy or too difficult.
3. Students do not have background information necessary to engage a problem, thus making it easy to quit.
4. Teachers present information in a disconnected way, thus students cannot remember background information to address critical thinking problems.
5. Students sit and force themselves to hold back both sleep and drool, while dreaming about that cute girl sitting in the front.
6. Students are no longer curious.

As I read, I made liberal notes throughout, and it will be a book to revisit. If you are a teacher, I think that you'll find this to be an important work for your professional growth. At face value, here are the three main points that I have thought most about since completing this:

1. As I already listed, people are naturally curious. I like this idea, and I must remember it as I teach. Am I creating problems that challenge students to think and wrestle with in class, problems that are still within their reach for success? Reducing the amount of other work to focus on more of this kind of work is something that I want to do. This includes offering more opportunities for students to play with language and words. Sometimes, I forget about this as I try to meet content standards.

2. Memorization is important, as it provides the building blocks for critical thinking. The author is not suggesting long lists of information to remember. However, in order for our brains to conquer a problem, basic materials are needed. This could be definitions, word parts, poetry, multiplication tables, etc. Modern teaching often belittles memorizing as outdated pedagogy, but when students do not know the times tables or what the definition of an allusion is, the critical thinking engagement is crippled.

3. The effectiveness of "multiple intelligences" is over-emphasized in education. According to Wellingham, educators put too much stock in this, as there does not seem to be different intelligences, rather strengths and talents. We do students a disservice when we tell them that they are smart in some area, even if they are not the same. His suggestion is that we focus on varying the lessons (sometimes visual, using music, acting, etc.) rather than on each student. This is the area that teachers will squirm and protest the most. Multiple intelligences are the sacred cows of education. If you don't believe me, as a teacher you know about them. Their eyes will light up as they tell you about how they had students act out what a commas does or sing about a Picasso painting.

Why Don't Students Like School? is the perfect primer for educators to get a peek into the complex and deep world of brain research. I still won't use "brain research shows..." in my next conversation, but I found this book a good first step in understanding how it relates to education.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's Even Worth A Second Reading, July 22, 2009
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This review is from: Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom (Hardcover)
There are a lot of books out there trying to provide fixes for our educational woes. Everyone but the NEA seems to recognize that education in the US is in a sorry state, but there is no consensus as to the root problem or how to address it. Approaches range from denying the problem, to celebrating the problem, to dressing up old fads to look like new fads, to discounting anything educational experts say simply because educational experts are saying it. Daniel T. Willingham's book "Why Don't Students Like School?" is a reasoned, reasonable contribution to a body of work that is characterized by extremes. Willingham is a cognitive scientist who brings just as much of your grandma's common sense to this topic as he does science. The chapters discuss what teachers (and most others who have lived with other human beings for more than thirty years) recognize: People are naturally curious and want to answer questions; factual knowledge about a topic precedes the ability to think well on the topic; we understand new things within the context of our prior knowledge; proper practice makes perfect; people can improve their intelligence through hard work.
Willingham effectively explains the science and provides appropriate examples, making the book very accessible and easy to read for non-experts. In fact, he develops the book using the same strategies he espouses for the classroom (repetition, story telling, analogies, etc.). Each chapter includes the cognitive principle that guides the chapter, a statement of the chapter's purpose (reiterated several times throughout), logical development with examples familiar to the layperson, and analogies that draw upon the reader's prior knowledge. Each chapter ends with a section called "Implications for the Classroom" that includes several practical suggestions for implementing the principles discussed.
The negative evaluations of certain reviewers on this site indicate that they either based their assessments solely on the publisher's blurbs, or that they failed to read the text in a reflective manner (thereby proving Willingham's point about the shallowness of thought). Willingham's claims make a great deal of sense, provided one understands and accepts his definitions, e.g. his definition of "thinking". If one insists on using the word "thinking" to describe consciousness, then the author's assertion that the brain is designed to avoid thinking makes as much sense as claiming that the heart is designed to avoid beating. But if one accepts the definition proposed on page 3 ("...solving problems, reasoning, reading something complex, or doing any mental work that requires some effort."), then his subsequent assertions follow logically and make sense. Thinking occurs through the novel combination of information from the environment and/or long term memory. This does not describe the vast majority of our daily tasks. Those who don't like Willingham's definitions should take issue with him on those grounds, rather than criticizing him for not fairly playing a game whose rules they've rewritten after the game was over.
Aside from the contentious chapter on the brain's natural aversion to thought, the chapter on learning styles and multiple intelligences is the most threatening to the education community. Willingham uses the results of numerous studies as well as the testimony of multiple-intelligence inventor Howard Gardner himself in order to make a sound case that students are more alike than they are different when it comes to how they think and learn. Willingham suggests that teachers treat their students differently on the basis of their experience with their students, but that they primarily think in terms of content, not in terms of students. Of course, this is anathema to educational "experts", yet it is common sense to the common person. As the author states, "Writing a poem about the arc that a golf club should take will not help your swing." For some reason this kind of sense too often gets checked at the classroom door.
On the whole I found the book quite useful. There is much that confirmed what I as a language teacher already do (storytelling), or avoid (technology for technology's sake), or would like to add (praise of the effort rather than of the intelligence), or that made me ask if I'm being as effective as I can be (inadvertently doing things that distract students from the content being covered). I don't usually read books on education because I don't usually find them helpful. Not only did I read this book, but I plan on reading it again so that I can begin implementing suggestions that will aid my students in their learning.
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