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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
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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Location: Michigan

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