Book Reflection: 5 things I’ve learned from “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

Daniel Willingham’s seminal book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, is a foundational text for modern pedagogy. This introduction to cognitive science for the classroom is at once robustly-researched, thought-provoking, and unerringly practical. Yet, how many of us who diligently read this book as trainee teachers have returned to it later on in our careers?

Picking this text up again in my sixth year of teaching has proved to be one of my better decisions! It has reminded me of fundamental principles and useful strategies to employ in the classroom, and it has challenged my practice – how often do I settle for a task that keeps students busy, but does not actually prompt real thinking and, therefore, meaningful learning?

So here are my top 5 takeaways from re-reading Willingham.

1. I need to ensure my students are thinking

Willingham explains that “thinking occurs when you combine information (from the environment and long-term memory) in new ways” (p.14). This happens in the working memory. This deceptively simple definition raises a number of questions for me as I think about my lesson planning for next half-term.

Firstly, how am I presenting my students with new information (the environment), and am I getting this right? In recent years I have simplified the presentation of my powerpoints and my resources, foregrounding the texts and key information, whilst removing unnecessary images or fonts. I have increased the level of challenge in these resources so that instead of shying away from “difficult” texts, I am teaching students the disciplinary knowledge they need to cope with higher levels of challenge.

Secondly, do all my students have the necessary knowledge in their long-term memories to be able to think effectively? I have been using knowledge retrieval activities for years, but the Covid pandemic means that recently I have not been able to fall into a rhythm of using well-planned spaced retrieval (also recommended by Willingham – see p.119) and so this definitely needs to be a priority for me. I regularly re-teach ideas and vocabulary when knowledge retrieval activities reveal weaknesses in students’ memories – although this decision is always in tension with time pressure, particularly at GCSE level.

2. Change is important

Willingham recommends that if a teacher is losing the class’s attention, that they should introduce a change into the lesson (p.21). As a novice teacher, I know that I misinterpreted this idea. I remember getting students to write on desks with whiteboard markers – not for the potential learning value of the task, but because the “thrill” of graffitiing might engage students more effectively. It turns out that writing on a desk when you have permission to do so is not actually any more interesting than writing on sugar paper or in an exercise book. Whilst I am sure that many teachers use this strategy effectively, I realise that I employed it for all the wrong reasons – in a desperate attempt to create extrinsic interest in the lesson, rather than focussing on the intrinsic motivation which comes from reading and understanding a beautifully crafted text.

Now I realise that when Willingham writes about change, what he means is much more subtle and responsive than a pre-planned attention-grabbing activity. A slight change in pace, the introduction of a snappy think-pair-share activity, or an off-the-cuff retrieval task can be introduced organically (and without the stress of cleaning red whiteboard pen off desks) and can refocus students on a Friday period 5 in an overheated classroom.

3. Knowledge needs to become deep and malleable

The movement towards knowledge retrieval over the past 5or so years has led some people to question whether it simply promotes rote learning – with children becoming Pink Floydian “bricks in the wall”. However, Willingham reminds us that whilst drilling is an essential aspect of ensuring students have secure background knowledge, the accumulation of facts is not an end in itself. Rather, retrieval practice means that the process of pulling relevant knowledge from the long-term memory becomes automatic, and thus reduces the space being used in the working memory – freeing up students’ minds to engage with increasingly complex tasks in which they manipulate their knowledge to find a solution to a new problem.

Willingham also writes about deep knowledge, which means that a student “knows more about the subject, and the pieces of knowledge are more richly interconnected. The student understands not just the parts but also the whole” (p.95). So a GCSE student might understand the individual events in Macbeth, for example, and also how these contribute to Shakespeare’s exploration of the dangers of tyranny. The same student might recognise this pattern in An Inspector Calls, in which Mr Birling is also used as an example of the misuse of power. This might remind them of Napoleon in Animal Farm, a story they may have enjoyed in Year 7, and which now gains additional significance. Willingham emphasises the huge numbers of examples which students must encounter in order to gain an understanding of these underlying structures. As an English teacher, this reminds me of the importance of ensuring students read widely and independently so that they can engage with as many examples of narrative as possible. I also need to find ways of pointing out the connections in these underlying structures to my students.

4. Transferring knowledge is challenging

One of my main frustrations in teaching is students’ apparent and utterly baffling inability to transfer knowledge from one situation to another. For example, I can teach students how to write an essay comparing two poems for their English Literature GCSE, but when we move on to a very similar task in a different context (comparing two non-fiction texts for English Language), they seem to have no recollection of the process whatsoever. One of my favourite parts of teaching the GCSE course is therefore when we move on to doing lots of walking talking mocks in the spring, and students suddenly realise that the processes we go through for each question are (almost) fundamentally the same.

One real positive for me about re-reading Willingham is the reassurance that this frustration is a common one! He argues that students need a wealth of examples and practice in order to be able to transfer knowledge from one context to another. “Our minds,” writes Willingham, “assume that new things we read (or hear) will be related to things we have just read (or heard)” (p.100). Therefore students tackling a non-fiction comparison will naturally focus on the superficial aspects of the text and task (such as Wilde’s description of Victorian prisons and what connects this to a modern description of the justice system) rather than on the deep, structural similarities to the essay we recently wrote on the presentation of romantic love in Byron and Shelley.

I find that spending more time on metacognitive thinking has helped to accelerate the process my classes often reach in the spring of Year 11. Now, when my students are answering an exam-style question in Year 10, I spend more time discussing the reasons behind the process I am teaching them (why do you think we draw a comparison table to plan our answer? Why do we include linking sentences and phrases connecting the texts together? Remember when we were writing an essay on X – what was the next step?). I also introduce a lot more examples of the same task (we do a lot of 5 minute plans).

5. How can I get my students to think like literary critics?

This, of course, is the ultimate goal. Yet Willingham points out that an expert in a particular field will think differently to a novice. For example, when I am reading a text for the first time, I am automatically testing out hypotheses – is the writer approaching this from a feminist angle? No, that description of the female character is rather stereotyped. Is it more likely that…? This type of thinking is so habitual to me that I often don’t realise I am doing it, and for me it also relies on an enormous amount of background knowledge as I weigh the text in hand up against other similar texts I have read previously, or ideas I might have encountered in discussion.

So how do we bridge this gap? Willingham posits that the route to expertise is practice. Therefore, teachers need to break down the processes that we – as experts in our fields – go through in order to solve a problem. Then, we need to explicitly externalise and teach these processes, giving students plenty of opportunities to practice.

For example, as a literary critic, the first step I take is to frame my question, then I define my terms and consider their characteristics (e.g. is Shakespeare’s presentation of Lady Macbeth potentially proto-feminist? What characteristics of feminist texts might I look for in the text?). Then I would search for evidence to support or negate the hypothesis, and I would need to consider this evidence from a range of different perspectives in order to test its strength. Of course, I might be wrong – and I know that failure is a normal part of learning and thinking.

If you – like me – haven’t read this book in a long time, then I strongly recommend dusting it off and getting stuck in.

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