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Customer Review

63 of 66 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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Initial post: Mar 22, 2014 5:42:45 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 22, 2014 5:59:22 PM PDT
"Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts ..."

There it is - the essence! You wrote an excellent review and listed the major points that kept me turning pages as I read this book. I did a 250 page Master's thesis on constructivism using Action Research in my methodology. I went into teaching all starry eyed about constructivist learning only to see how complicated and how much subject expertise was required for the just the teacher himself let alone the students.

That said, I did not shirk from such a challenge and still see merit in constructivism. However this method is not the panacea that keeps coming around the bend every so many years with a new name (i.e. "experiential", "discovery", "inquiry"); the students very very much need grounding in fundamental facts to make sense of "the knowledge they are constructing". I will say though that "Hands On" + "Factual Grounding" is powerful and long lasting.

Still, time is a major factor here and with testing and curriculum coverage at stake, putting these two together needs to be a selective endeavor. I would suggest picking a number of projects and proceeding in that manner. Science lends itself very well to such a design.

Willingham just makes good practical sense and debunks much of what I went into with such gung ho enthusiasm. While I still believe constructivism is a good thing, I believe its proponents and adherents leave a lot out. Anyway, you wrote a a review well worthy of a purchase. By the way I wrote a review here as well but did not come as close to hitting the mark here as you did.
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