Returning now with a second post challenging Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? In this post, I want to confront his claim in Chapter 6 that there is a “flawed assumption;” that students are not “cognitively capable of doing what scientists or historians do.”    This really cuts to my quick: it is my sustained argument here and elsewhere that we best engage, motivate, and train our young minds when we respect their capacity and challenge and support them to act like young professionals, to act in the mode of historians and scientists.

Again, Willingham makes some good points in this chapter, things I admire and appreciate and value.  But on the main point, on whether students can think as scientists,  and whether we should teach them to do so,  he comes across as a cranky curmudgeon: “Trying to get your students to think like them [experts, scientists, historians] is not a realistic goal.”

Professor Willingham offers the main support for his claim by explaining that students are not experts, and that experts think better than students.  OK, stipulated, interesting but hardly illuminating.  He goes on to explain how they think differently, not just better: “they see the deep structure of problems.. and have abstract knowledge of problem types.”   And he explains how experts develop this expertise: experts become experts, we are told, by spending ten years and ten thousand hours (just as Gladwell explains in Outliers) developing that expertise.  All of with which I agree.

But then there seems to be a quite significant logical mistake on Willingham’s part, and I want to use his example of Edison to make my point.  Edison, our professor sternly admonishes, became an expert by working so hard for so long.   Fine.  But my memory of Edison biographies is that that expertise, arrived at after so many thousands of hours of practice, did not come from thousands of hours spent in lecture halls, textbooks, and note-taking.   Edison became an expert scientist after spending thousand of hours as an amateur scientist.  The same could be said for musicians, which are a prime example of Willingham’s argument; virtuoso musicians become so by thousands of hours of practicing as musicians, not thousand of hours listening to lectures and reading textbooks and taking tests about music.   Look at Gladwell’s explanation of the genius of Bill Gates: he came by that genius by beginning to program computers in his teens, not by spending nine years at MIT earning a doctorate in computer science.

I vigorously believe we can best create innovative, independent minded, industrious and indeed genius scientists and historians by challenging and supporting them to act as, and think as, scientists and historians.   This is a favorite topic of mine, and let me offer three pieces of evidence to support my claim: two from university scholars, and one from my own first hand research.

I have written about Alison Gopnik, for instance, and her genius book, The Scientist in the Crib; Gopnik has (unlike me) academic credentials to match Dr. Willingham’s, her being a UC Berkeley professor of cognitive psychology.   In her book, she makes the case that children are, from infancy, naturally scientists, and, tragically, school often drives out their curiosity and knowledge constructing talents.

In my 21 high school student shadowing project, I discovered that some of the high school classrooms which I observed to be most cognitively charged, most invigorating, and with the most learning, were those like the ones at New Technology High School, where students wrote their own textbooks and tackled real world science problems, and where students had an attitude of acting as young professionals in their field.    I would love for Professor Willingham to see these classrooms in action and continue to maintain his position that we cannot expect students to learn from acting as scientists and historians.

And just recently, I wrote a post here which further reinforces my argument, citing from the research findings of two Stanford scholars, who argue we must invert Bloom’s taxonomy.   Students will learn more if they work as historians from the outset of their studies, rather than postponing that to the end:

For the history classroom, the pyramid posters need to be turned upside down, locating knowledge at the peak of the pyramid and not at its base. That’s because in history, as in other disciplines, the aim is not merely to collect what is known, but to learn how to think about problems in a new way. Students who think historically know that they need to begin with analysis: What is this? Who wrote it? What time does it come from?

And, just as important, they know that their destination—new knowledge—isn’t critical thinking’s base camp. It’s the summit.

I am grateful for Willingham’s book; I find it stimulating and rich with ideas of significance for teaching.   But there is a thread throughout it, wherein alongside making valuable research based points he feels the need to strike a blow against what is sometimes called progressive, and now often called 21st century, education, and when he does so, he strays from his sound research, and ends up appearing ideological rather than scientific.