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233 of 242 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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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 10, 2009 7:25:13 PM PDT
gerheif says:
Excellent review, and as a result I hope readers will take away another central tenet; whether one is a current 'PhD' student or an old-time practioner always be open to new RESEARCH based findings, with a 'critical thinking' mind set. What the old timers will find interesting and strangely current is that often the research has not yet caught up to 'tried and true' techniques. Find any master teacher whose students are consistent 'achievers' and you will find a parallel whether intentional or not to current research based 'best practices'. As school psychologists we have known for a LONG time (try late 90's) that multiple intelligences were a 'nice' idea, but pretty much that, an idea. Finally, don't be passive learners. Question, at least privately, the 'experts' that are presenting the latest, 'new' best thing. Check out their credentials, their training university, and their history of publication. Yes, there is plenty of data floating around but ask the current intern for their trainer's e-mail and request some guidance to help you sort.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2009 5:05:03 AM PDT
It is funny because ever since Dewey and Montessori, the same fads have come back in repackaged forms time and time again: constructivist pedagog, "cooperative" learning, and relevance as driving focus. All of these things are quite old and repackaged ideas rom the early progressive '20s, and all of them seem not to work as well as their counterparts.

If you liked my review, you might check out my blog at edphilosopher at wordpress dot com.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 25, 2009 5:44:42 AM PDT
I tried to access your blog but hit a wall. Yes, I changed "at" and "dot" to their appropriate symbols. Tried going to wordpress and searching for your blog. Not savvy enough to know what to try next. Help me out?

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 25, 2009 1:34:42 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Sep 20, 2009 4:27:36 AM PDT

The best way, then, might be to click on my name above, go to my profile page, and access the link on my profile (on the left column below my e-mail address).

[EDIT: A fellow reviewer who found my website hinted to me that the mistake is that the address should read "edphilosopher dot wordpress dot com" (the first "at" above should be "dot.")

Posted on Nov 18, 2009 8:11:49 AM PST
luvu2 says:
I am not sure that the author bearing a "PhD" aftr his name corroborates his theories-- this constitutes no more than another ad hominem error. What I would respect is a meta-analysis of high achieving teachers and their methodlogies along with a sufficient explanation of why they are considered "high achieving" to begin with. Does this book answer those questions?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2009 3:25:10 PM PST
There is no 'ad ominem error' in Wilingham's book. Willingham is not analyzing practices of highly successful teachers; that generally is not the business of cognitive psychology, the discipline Willingham is in. What Willingham does do, though, is to review the literature from psychological studies showing that methods of constructivism widely hailed in the education world have less grounding in fact than once supposed.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 25, 2009 1:00:36 PM PST
luvu2 says:
First, I wasn't saying that there was an "ad hominem error" in Willingham's book-- it may be perfectly logically consistant in its presentation--rather, I brought this up in reference to the implication that because he is a "cognitive scientist" that this fact alone lends any credibility to the value of his work as it applies towards teaching. The proof is in the pudding. I don't believe that cognitive science offers a monolithic stance on this topic of "why don't students like school" or on many other fundamentally relevant issues and so if one cog sci disagrees with another and both use equally valid scientific methodology how do we distinguish the value of one's thesis over the other? I'm a pragmatist when it comes to such matters and so I'd say that we need to see if the theories are borne out by the "success" of the teachers; that is, observe where the rubber meets the road. Also, I always thought that cognitive science was, in addition to being "functionalist", also multi-disciplinary drawing from psychology, biology, sociology, ... so why, in principle, would this not be what a cognitive scientist does? It's simply not what Willingham was doing-- at least according to your post.
Furthermore, I've seen some extraordinarily effective Montessorri teachers as well as some poor ones. What I'd like to know is what makes one so much more effective than the other and could we possibly replicate that success. In my experience, NLP has done an admirable though unfinished job in pointing out what makes good therapists. Can the same methodology be applied to making teachers who are more likely to excel with their students?

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 25, 2009 1:59:11 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 25, 2009 2:13:57 PM PST

I don't think there is any part of Willingham's book which argues that the fact that he's a cognitive scientist gives him any right to a last word on the subject. That would be pompous and arrogant.

I am not sure where I imply in my review that cognitive psychology is not a multi-disciplinary field or that Willingham doesn't recognize that. Willingham certainly does draw most of his evidence from studies conducted by education psych (is this a bad thing?) but when necessary explains, say, the neurological evidence or evolutionary evidence to support a certain conclusion.

And I do understand your desire to understand the "why" of what makes x teacher's method effective and y's not effective. That is what we are all trying to do. That is why we do the ed psych studies that Willingham cites. But in order to get at those "whys" we need to do studies and listen to their results. Thus, I'm not sure why you are giving Willingham a hard time for doing precisely that. It seems like you want it both ways: you want to understand the "whys" of various practices, but when someone (a cognitive psychologist) attempts to draw conclusions from studies, you deride them as "just an academic." I am not sure what you want, then.

You point out that two cognitive psychologists could disagree using equally robust evidence. That is true and I have no problem with that. Evidence may not all point ot the same conclusion and, when that occurs, it simply means that the field is not far enough along to have a consensus. If you are referring to the dispute betwen Gardner and Willingham, though, I will suggest that Gardner tends to use evidence from outside of the field of psychology (biology, historiography, etc) while Willinham tends to cite ed psych studies done with actual students. I trust the latter more than the former.

But don't take my word for it; read his book and judge for yourself.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 25, 2009 8:44:03 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 25, 2009 9:01:52 PM PST
luvu2 says:
Evidently I failed to make myself clear so I will try one more time. I should also add that of all the reviews, I found yours the most helpful, nevertheless....

While you don't categorically give Willingham the "right to the last word on the subject" you certainly go far in disparaging Eric Jensen on the basis of a classic ad hominem argument, stating that Willingham"unlike Jensen, is a PhD cognitive scientist... while Jensen has a Bachelors in working towards his PhD through an online university and makes his real living as a motivational speaker...Willingham is the real deal" . Now granted, Willingham's material may ultimately bear much more fruit to answering the question of what makes a good teacher, but that is not what I'm commenting on. In fact, I'm not critical of Willingham (who admittedly I've yet to read) but rather, the idea that one's academic credentials at all indicates the value of one's thesis against that of another (which is a classical ad hominem error). I am talking logic here-- not what simply sounds reasonable (but really isn't).

And I'm not merely trying to split hairs or argue about how many fairies can fit on a pinhead. As a case in point, I would cite the work of the great educator, George Guthridge, who with his mere English BA in hand(like that upstart Jensen), transformed a bunch of semi-literate Alskan Natives into multiple year National Mind Olympic Champions. Beyond that, he ultimately earned his PhD and taught grad ed students to, successfully, no-- outstandingly-- apply his methods in their own classrooms. IMHO, Guthridge is the real deal. And by the way, he uses a number of the ideas propounded by Jensen. I would hope that men such as Willingham would closely study teachers such as Guthridge and not just the merits or drawbacks of constructivism. This certainly doesn't constitute deriding anyone for being an academic.

The effectiveness of NLP researchers came from closely examining two of the premier healers of their time-- Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. Now of course, not all practitioners of NLP achieve the same level of results-- but research in this area continues forward by phenomenologically studying the elite practitioners, their vocal pacing, their use of language, their facial expressions in relation to those of their patients, their use of body language and many other modalities.... as well as their professed methodologies. There's a great distinction between the two though it might not seem so readily apparent. A great teacher can shift between Gardnerian and Willinghamish prescriptions and still equally far outpace the norm. Why is this so? Does Willingham address this concern? Are the most useful questions being asked? I will find out.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 26, 2009 4:54:36 AM PST
Gotcha. I am sorry I misread you there. Actually, it is true that I dislike Jensen. The reason is (in part) because Jensen is currently "in the process" of working toward a PhD at an ONLINE UNIVERSITY. I do not mean to intimate that credentials are everything, but I do think that credentials are at least something. (Another reason I dislike Jensen is that the neuroscientists who have spoken on the subject warn against what Jensen is doing, arguing either that he applies the studies wrong because he doesn't understand them, or shouldn't be applyling kthem at all because it is to soon to apply them.)

I understand your point about not unduly judging based on credentials. But it sounds like Geo0rge Guthridge was not selling himself as an expert like Jensen is. Jensen writes and sells millions of dollars worth of professional developments as an expert and authority. I simply find that if one is going to sell themselves as an authority, one should probably not be getting their PhD from a diploma mill.

I agree, though, that Willingham and anyone else who wants to study how teaching can be most effective should study most effective teachers. The problem is that while that is very insightful in a qualitative sense, cognitive psychology generally gives more weight to quantitative studies that can adjust for many variables qualitative stuff can't adjust for. I agree that both are important, but if one is trying to find out what strategies will work with groups of kids irrespective of geography, culture, or other variables, examining certain all-star teachers may have its limitations (as their results may be exclusive to them for reasons partly outside of their teaching).

>>>A great teacher can shift between Gardnerian and Willinghamish prescriptions and still equally far outpace the norm. Why is this so? Does Willingham address this concern? Are the most useful questions being asked? I will find out. <<<

Almost. Willingham does mention several times (as any good cognitive psychologist should) that teaching seems not to come down to formula. While he can give us guidelines on ways to plan lessons that may engage students most, or ways to get them to learn what the endocrine system is, in the end it also comes down to the teacher's own personality and style. So, Willingham gives us ideas, but he doesn't give us rigid rules and tell us we must follow these this way to experience success.
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