Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel T. WillinghamI have argued with Professor Willingham before, countering in a previous post his Ed. Leadership article which, I thought, mis-stated and underappreciated 21st century education.  Here I want to offer some criticisms and counterarguments to his book, published last spring, entitled Why Don’t Students Like School?

I am focusing this discussion on the first few chapters, and will return later to the later chapters.  I need to say, there are many good things in the book (though I wish it hadn’t been printed in such tiny, and lightly colored font).   I agree with many of his ideas and assertions, this one being a fine example:

When it comes to teaching, I think of it this way:  The material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question.  On its own, the answer is almost never interesting.  But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting.  That’s why making the question clear is so important…. There is a conflict in almost any lesson plan, if you look for it.  This is another way of saying that the material we want students to know is the answer to a question– and the question is the conflict.

This is great stuff; I am a huge fan, for instance, of Gerald Graff, and he has influenced me greatly to recognize and appreciate the value of “teaching the argument,”  teaching the controversy, teaching to argue.  There are many other worthwhile points and discussions: I love his ideas about teaching via the power of stories; I too think mnemonics have a place in learning, and I certainly agree that kids need to read, and we need to vigorously support/promote/encourage/demand they read widely and deeply.

But, but, but!  Willingham almost seems intentionally provocative and obnoxious to those of who are pursuing a 21st century agenda that is about infusing greater meaning and relevancy to learning, that is about reconciling teaching skills and content, and other points as well. I say intentionally provocative because it doesn’t appear to this reader his supporting points and fuller discussion really support his challenging criticisms; he undermines his own argument.

First, a smaller point.   Willingham criticizes a teacher for asking students to better visualize a complex plot by diagramming the structure with graphics instead of words (49): “that meant my nephew thought very little about the relation between different plot elements and a great deal about how to draw a good castle.”   This is harsh and judgemental, and I want to cite the very expert Robert Marzano: “probably the most underutilized instructional category of all those reviewed in this book– creating nonlinguistic representations– helps students understand content in a whole new way.”  This teacher’s assignment, according to Marzano, is a far better way to learn, remember, and think through the plot structure by its use of “non-linguistic representation.”

But onto the larger points.  Chapter 2 makes a sustained argument that Einstein was wrong, “imagination is not more important than knowledge.”  It is funny to see this, because I was only just last week writing about Trilling and Fadel’s 21st c. Skills, and commented that in their discussion of the central importance of innovation and creativity, they cited the trite and now cliched Einstein quote.  But here the Einstein quote is more interesting and provocative to thought because it is being pronounced wrong.   This is a theme through the chapter, the rhetorical argument against those of us who value greatly teaching thinking skills and for creativity and imagination: this same chapter opens with the assertion “Factual knowledge must precede skill.”

Willingham’s point is that students need facts to think well, to have something to think about, to better inform their thinking, and to better learn new facts in the future.  I agree with all of these points, and as we delve in to the substance of his discussion, past the rhetoric, we find that it is a only matter of emphasis that separates us.   I think that students will learn more content when they are acting upon the knowledge, and when then they are approaching that knowledge with an inquiry analysis, and when they seek to use the knowledge they are learning in practical, applied ways.  In doing so, they learn the knowledge better, and are better informed to learn new and additional knowledge, which itself will be best be learned by inquiry and application.

Willingham tacks back and forth in this chapter– at times we agree exactly, as here:

“the cognitive processes that are most esteemed– logical thinking, problem solving, and the like, are intertwined with knowledge.  It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value.  It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking without factual knowledge.”

Intertwined, yes.  Willingham makes a similar point elsewhere in the chapter: “we must ensure students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.”  Parallel, yes: My argument is that facts do not precede knowledge, they are indeed intertwined and parallel, and that to ask which comes first is as useful as to ask of the chicken and egg.   But so I find myself arguing not with the substance of Willingham’s chapter, but the rhetoric: “Facts must precede knowledge.”

And Einstein wasn’t wrong.  Imagination is more important–not because it has nothing to do with knowledge, nor because it isn’t enhanced by knowledge– it is.   But it is more important because it both precedes knowledge, generating the motivation to inquire, to ask why, to seek to learn more, and because when informed by knowledge, it accomplishes more, generates new knowledge, advances us as a species.

Willingham also takes a misstep when he offers the following:

“I don’t know why some great thinkers, who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.  I suppose we are supposed to take these remarks as ironic, or at least interesting, but I for one don’t need brilliant, highly capable minds telling me and my children how silly it is to know things.”

This really loses any fine thinking or appreciation for subtlety in its effort to make a rhetorical announcement.   In denigrating schools, these thinkers are NOT suggesting it is silly to know things, of course they are not.   They are saying students are not learning in  schools that teach this way, and  we still see many classrooms (I have seen many) where  lectures and textbooks only deliver factual content, ad nauseam, and do not at all do exactly what Willingham has called for several times in this chapter.  The critics are criticizing the (many!) classrooms where skills are not intertwined with knowledge, where they are not learned in parallel.

Once again, I need to say– there are many, many fine points in this chapter.  I will end my discussion of Chapter 2 by quoting very approvingly the following:

“Cognitive Science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again– the unifying ideas of each discipline.  Some educational thinkers have suggested that a limited number of ideas be tuaght in great depth, beginning in the early grades and carrying through the curriculum for years as different topics and viewed through the lens of one or more of these ideas.”

Onto Chapter 3, which also has wonderful insights and a brilliant nugget that should inform teachers and teaching everywhere: students learn and remember the things they spend their time thinking about.   Simple maybe, but brilliant. And, as above, I love the teaching via storytelling, and the 4C’s of stories that we can embed into our lesson structure: “Causality, conflict, complications, character.”

So why does he have to attack teaching which seeks relevancy?  “Trying to make the material relevant to students’ interests doesn’t work.”  We want students to spend more time thinking more deeply about the material they are learning; I just can’t accept the assertion they won’t do exactly this, spend more time, and think more deeply, if it is on a topic that has some meaning to them.  Willingham is right in part– sometimes it is just plan hard to find the relevancy, and sometimes the effort to do so does feel forced and artificial.   Relevancy is a broad concept, and sometimes it can be found in very narrow ways– but it does, and I have seen it again and again in my own classroom observations during my 21school shadow-blogging project– students do think more, and are far more engaged, when they are able to make a link from what they are learning to something in their own lives, in their own future, or that provides them a means to an end, (be it a small end or large).

On page 49, our author asserts quite emphatically that this doesn’t work; on page 65, he offers a far more nuanced discussion of the same issue: “I’m not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in.”   But even here, he swings and misses.  The examples he provides are not good support for his very assertion: “It often feels to me that it doesn’t apply.  Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way that they can understand right now?…Making these topics relevant to students’ lives will be a strain.”  I am sorry, but Gilgamesh is an ancient tale that is still meaningful as a heroic journey and a coming of age story that most definitely can be linked to the eternal passage of youth that our students are themselves undergoing.   Good teachers do that– I have seen them do it, and I have seen the room come alive, and I have seen students in these rooms think far more than in the others.

More coming later about this interesting, important, often valuable, but sometimes off-the-mark book.