Why Don’t Students Like School?

The beginning of June brings the onset of summer vacation for children across the United States. The excitement bubbling in their young hearts is easy to understand yet also offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on why students tend to dislike school. Of course, arguably, few humans happily seek assignments and work, but why do some students, especially older students, lose the enjoyment of attending school? As naturally curious creatures, why do many humans quickly grow to despise an institution designed to serve and improve them?

University of Virginia professor and cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham sought to answer that very question and thereby wrote the book that should be at the very top of every parent, teacher, and principal’s summer reading list: Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom.

In just 165 pages, Willingham pulls off in his newly released book two feats heretofore assumed impossible: For starters, he synthesizes decades of technical findings in cognitive psychology in prose not only comprehensible to the layman but enjoyable, too.

Then, like a laser, Willingham cuts through multiple thorny and perpetual educational debates. Armed with clear explanations, examples, and top-line research, Willingham shows that many of these debates are actually over, or should be, as many long-held beliefs regarding education are simply false.

Did you know for instance that praising a child for being smart only succeeds in making him dumb? Did you know that an effective attention-getter at the beginning of a lesson is a surefire way to ruin a child’s concentration? Did you know that adjusting lessons for “visual,” “auditory,” and “kinesthetic” learners is an exercise in futility since they don’t really exist? Did you know that attempting to relate a subject to the “child’s world” will most often destroy interest?

Based solely on the previous paragraph, there are now undoubtedly many educationists running to break out worn clichés to attack Willingham. Stale cries against “drill and kill,” “boring,” and “old” pedagogy will be unleashed unfairly and inaccurately to marginalize Willingham and the truths he explains. This reaction will be tragic because Willingham is not offering yet another diatribe from any particular educational or political camp. Rather, he eloquently reports on nine principles “that are so fundamental to the mind’s operation that they do not change as circumstances change. They are as true in the classroom as they are in the laboratory and therefore can reliably be applied to classroom situations.”

Willingham has two straightforward goals: to “tell you how your students’ minds work, and to clarify how to use that knowledge to be a better teacher.” He masterfully succeeds at both.

Each of Willingham’s chapters revolve around a crucial question, so readers will discover not only why students don’t like school, but why students remember TV shows and forget school lessons (memory is a residue of thought), whether drilling is worth it (it is), and how to get students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians (you can’t immediately). Willingham’s explication in chapter three of why teachers must “pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about)” has literally revolutionary power to improve schools if only it were widely applied.

Willingham opens his book Cognition by stating that a “long-standing goal of human inquiry is to understand ourselves.” His book will appeal to all for just that reason. Most importantly though, Willingham correctly notes that it “would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children.” This was the purpose of Why Don’t Students Like School? and is the reason this book is essential for anyone concerned about education.

Students understandably dislike school for a host of reasons, but we needlessly design our lessons against the grain of what we know about the human mind. Using just a brief part of the summer to learn from Willingham will make looking forward to the next school year a real possibility for students and teachers alike.

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  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar Ilarsadin

    I do not have it on hand, but I recall a quote of one of the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers to the effect that, “When school children start working in the interest of teachers, that’s when the teacher’s union will start taking an interest in doing good for school children.”

    In these United States, the NLRA and NLRB have made unions into protection rackets.

  • Kathryn

    I suspect the reason kids do not like school is the same reason we adults don’t like dealing with the Post Office or Secretary of State’s office or local Social Security Office, or, frankly, any other government run entity.

    This actually does sound like a good book to read, but the author seems to be saying there is no such thing as visual, auditory, etc learners–that kids really don’t have any particular learning style. I’m not sure that I agree with that.

  • Joe DeVet

    Several of our kids didn’t like school, and school actually almost snuffed out the delight of discovery and the curiosity for learning new things that was natural to them.

    We finally (my wife gets all the credit) woke up and our last one enjoyed school. He went to a Catholic school all the way through, learned a lot, developed wide interests, learned to deal well with all kinds of people, got a merit scholarship for college, and is now a grad student. What Catholic school? Our home!

  • daughterofeve

    Joe, you hit the nail right on the head. I was home-schooled until 8th grade. I’m in high school now, and I really miss being able to reaserch what I’m interested in instead of what the teacher decides we should reaserch. I also miss reading without filling out a worksheet on every other paragraph. Congrats to your son!!