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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
13-minute read
Audio available
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

Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009) seeks to explain the brain’s most important processes relating to memory, learning and intelligence. A stronger understanding of these mechanisms will enable all educators to train themselves in better teaching methods and result in more engaging and effective educational programs.

  • Parents wanting to ensure their children succeed at school
  • Educators and teachers hoping to hone their craft
  • Forgetful people trying to improve their memory recall

Daniel T. Willingham is a cognitive psychologist who is a professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Psychology. Daniel T. Willingham earned his PhD from Harvard University and has authored numerous books related to education and psychology. These include Cognition: The Thinking Animal (2001) and Raising Kids Who Read (2015).

 

© Daniel T. Willingham: Why Don’t Students Like School? copyright 2009, John Wiley & Sons Inc. Used by permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc. and shall not be made available to any unauthorized third parties.

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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
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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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
Synopsis

Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009) seeks to explain the brain’s most important processes relating to memory, learning and intelligence. A stronger understanding of these mechanisms will enable all educators to train themselves in better teaching methods and result in more engaging and effective educational programs.

Key idea 1 of 8

Humans aren’t actually that good at thinking, but we are pretty great at pattern recognition.

Why is it that teenagers just can’t seem to get off their electronic devices? And why are they using the internet to play silly games, rather than using it as a treasure house of free knowledge?

Such stereotyping is pretty common, but it’s grossly unfair. As adults and maybe even teachers or parents, we should instead learn a little more about how the brain really functions and why it makes young adults behave the way they do. That’s what we’ll be doing here. You’ll find there’s no need to pass judgment.

The first surprising thing to take on board is that our brain actually doesn’t like to think. We’re not talking about day-to-day thoughts here, but rather those energy-intense, higher-level cognitive processes you employ when reading a difficult text or solving a complex math problem. Just think of how taxing it can feel to decipher a riddle!

It’s this kind of thought process that the human brain dislikes. In fact, its natural tendency is to try to avoid it altogether.

The reason is that active thinking of this kind is not only slow, but also requires huge quantities of energy. In the hunter-gatherer days of our earliest ancestors, that energy was certainly better spent elsewhere. Instead, most of our brain is devoted to processes which were far more important for survival, namely sight and movement. As a result, our abilities to see and move are extraordinary. For instance, a $5 calculator can do math faster than most humans, but no computer can yet walk along a rocky seashore.

So, while we’re great at seeing and moving, our brains don’t really like to engage in serious thinking. Where we do shine, however, is pattern spotting and recognition. Why? Well, this too has to do with energy. Having this skill means we can interpret situations quickly by comparing them with what we’ve seen before, rather than having to spend precious energy on thinking every time we encounter them.

Just think of how infants learn to speak. No one is sitting them down and giving them elocution and grammar lessons. Rather, babies instinctively spot language patterns and connect them with certain situations and objects. That’s how “mom” and “dad” get their names, and how infants learn to make a sound like “goodbye” when someone leaves.

We’ve seen that pattern recognition is great for avoiding energy-intensive thinking. But there’s another cognitive tool that stops us from overloading our brains while combing our hair: memory.

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