All it is cracked up to be? Some notes on Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’

26th July 2013

Don’t take my word for it; Read this book. Published, April 2010.

Finally I got round to reading Daniel Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ It’s been on my desk for quite a while after being recommended to me by a number of friends. It is probably the most frequently referenced book on the education blogosphere and certainly amongst the most contentious.

The following blog represents my notes and thoughts, which I started on Twitter and some people have said they found useful. I have tried as much as possible to write using Willingham’s own words. It is not an interpretation of his argument, rather an outline of the main subjects and some thoughts and opinions of my own. Most, but not all, are complementary.

My notes:

Introduction – Willingham explains the purpose of the book is to share with educators recent developments in cognitive science. The book is divided into nine chapters, each outlining a different principle “fundamental to the mind’s operation”, which he believes can be reliably applied to classroom practice.

At the centre of Willingham’s narrative is a model of the mind that describes how a person’s cognitive processes involves an interaction between the environment and their Working Memory (WM), in tandem, with their Long-Term Memory (LTM).

“Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in the LTM, procedures in LTM, and the amount of space in the WM.” [p.18]

My thoughts:

I’m not a cognitive scientist and I’m not an expert in all the most recent research in the field, however, I’m quite capable of recognising a theory when I see one and am always sceptical when I’m being asked to accept one on trust. Willingham spends very little time explaining how his model works (especially these mysterious ‘procedures’) or how scientists know the theory is robust; He basically asks us to take his word for it, however other theories are available [Ref].

Based on how little scientists actually know about how the human mind works, my view is all theories in cognitive science are extremely tenuous, and as a consequence should be considered with maximum scepticism and constantly tested by experiences in the real world: Especially those that reduce all the subtle complexity of human learning and understanding to three boxes with arrows pointing at them.

However, that is not to say Willingham’s book is without merit. In fact much of it is very useful. For example, I’m interested when Willingham tells me stories are an effective and engaging medium for helping children make new meaning and remember new information. But, I’m less interested when he tells me (according to his cognitive theory) this is because children’s working memory gets overloaded.

The strength of this book is that it contains good educational advice (mostly); its weakness is its constant reference to a theory in science that I find fundamentally unconvincing.

My Notes:

Principle 1: People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.

Willingham offers a list of seven things teachers can do to ensure their student’s enjoy school:

  1. Be sure that there are problems to be solved – “I mean cognitive work that poses moderate challenge… without some attention a lesson plan can become a long string of teacher explanations, with little opportunity for students to solve problems. So scan each lesson plan with an eye toward the cognitive work that students will be doing. How often does such work occur? Is it intermixed with cognitive breaks?”
  2. Respect students’ cognitive limits – Background knowledge and cognitive skills; “overloads of WM are caused by such things as multi-step instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept to new material.”
  3. Clarifying the problem to be solved – “Sometimes we are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question… it is the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you.”
  4. Reconsider when to puzzle students – the “goal is make them curious.”
  5. Accept and act on variation in student preparation – “it is self-defeating to give all your students the same work.”
  6. Change the pace – to grab the students’ attention.
  7. Keep a diary – for honest reflection.

My thoughts:

This is an extremely sensible list acknowledging the importance of working from where the students are while striving to plan and teach activities that challenge their cognitive limits and keep them engaged. I particularly noted the importance Willingham gives to questioning and creating opportunities for students to puzzle things out for themselves, not rushing to explain or give the answer. Throughout the book he is careful to give the central roles to both knowledge acquisition and skills development [procedural knowledge].

My notes:

Principle 2: Factual knowledge must precede skill.

Although this is the ‘principle’ of this chapter is appears as a line in a paragraph. Here is the paragraph in full:

“The cognitive principle that guides this chapter is: Factual knowledge must precede skill. The implication is that facts must be taught, ideally in the context of skills, and ideally beginning in preschool and even before.” [p.26]

Note Willingham is careful to include the rider, “in the context of skills”. This is a strategy he uses throughout the book, making a bold claim and then immediately qualifying his assertion, allowing him to appeal to teachers across the pedagogical spectrum.

The main argument of this chapter is:

  • Critical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge
  • “Students must acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills” [p.29]
  • Factual knowledge in long-term memory allows chunking, increasing space in WM
  • Making it easier for students to relate ideas and comprehend
  • Factual knowledge improves your memory, acting as cues, making connections between things we already know

Implications for the classroom:

  1. How to evaluate which knowledge to instil
  2. Be sure that the knowledge base is mostly in place when you require critical thinking
  3. Shallow knowledge is better than no knowledge
  4. Do what you can to get kids to read
  5. Knowledge acquisition can be incidental
  6. Start early
  7. Knowledge must be meaningful – “Teachers should not take the importance of knowledge to mean that they should create lists of facts for students to learn… knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another and that is not true of list learning. Also, as any teacher knows, such drilling would do far more harm by making students miserable and by encouraging the belief that school is a place of boredom and drudgery, not excitement and discovery.” (p.51)

My thoughts:

I approached this chapter in some trepidation, the principle: Factual knowledge must precede skill sounded particularly ominous. Summoning up images of Victorian classrooms and drilling facts. However, I needn’t have worried. In fact Willingham is careful to warn teachers this is not his intention, making it clear that although factual knowledge is the bedrock of learning, it is important that new knowledge is quickly used and applied in meaningful activities. Involving tasks that challenge students’ cognitive skills, engage them in exciting environments for learning and helping them make meaning.

My Notes:

Principle 3: Memory is the residue of thought.

The central idea behind this principle is that teachers “must pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember.” (p.54)


  • “a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning”
  • working on the meaning is important (interpretation) “there can be different aspects of meaning for the same material
  • “a student must pay attention to it [the material being learned]. Further, how the student thinks of the experience completely determines what will end up in the LTM.
  • Therefore, “ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material”

Willingham argues (convincingly) that trying to make the material relevant to students’ own interests doesn’t work and we should concentrate rather on making the material meaningful and engaging. “Effective teachers… are able to connect personally with students, and they organise the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.” (p.65)

He then discusses one of the most interesting (for me) themes of the book, “The Power of Stories”.

A story, he explains, is structured around four principles, often summarised as the four Cs:

  1. Causality
  2. Conflict
  3. Complications
  4. Characters

“A good story is built around strong, interesting characters, and the key to those qualities is action. A skilful storyteller shows rather than tells the audience what a character is like.” (p.67)

Stories bring three important advantages to teaching:

  1. They are easy to comprehend
  2. They are interesting
  3. They are easy to remember

“Structure your lessons the way stories are structured using the four Cs… This doesn’t mean you must do most of the talking. Small group work or projects or any other method may be used. The story structure applies to the way you organise the material that you encourage your students to think about, not the methods you use to teach the material.” (p.70)

At this point he again mentions the importance of questioning, “The material I want the 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. (p.75)

Willingham’s end by making clear his position on pedagogy: “Let me close this section by emphasising again that there are many ways in which one can be a good teacher… I’m stating that every teacher should get his or her students to think about the meaning of the material.” (p.75)

Further “Use discovery learning with care… [although] discovery learning has much to recommend it… what students will think about is less predictable… they may well explore mental paths that are not profitable… this doesn’t mean that discovery learning should never be used… it is probably most useful when the environment gives prompt feedback.” (p.82)

I’ve quoted as much as I can from this paragraph, trying to be fair to the meaning, without copying out the whole thing. You can see once again how Willingham makes a statement “Use discovery learning with care” and then immediately qualifies it, “discovery learning has much to recommend it”. What does he mean? You can see how different people have used his words to support opposing arguments: To my mind Willingham is being very sensible, putting the emphasis on learning, rather than pedagogy. I don’t see any evidence, at any point in the book, that he is promoting one teaching approach over another.

My favourite piece of advice at the end of this chapter is, “Try organising a lesson plan around the conflict… we want students to know the answer to a question – and the question is the conflict.” This suggests teachers think about the where the ‘tension’ lies in any lesson (‘inquiry’?). “Structuring a lesson plan around conflict can be a real aid to student learning… you are engaging students with the actual substance of the discipline… what I’m suggesting is that student’s interests should not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas.” (p.85)

My thoughts:

There is much I like in this chapter, particularly Willingham’s advocacy of using stories to engage students and make the curriculum meaningful. I didn’t expect to see tension (conflict) and inquiry (questioning and problem-solving) given such prominence, especially within narrative structures. Great stuff. Willingham is clearly not someone who thinks education is about ‘entertaining’ (distracting) children, which is quite right. But neither is he someone who ignores the importance of engaging them and making learning meaningful and exciting.

My Notes:

Principle 4: We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete.

  • Analogies help us understand something new by relating it to something we already know about
  • A consequence of dependence on prior knowledge is our need for concrete and familiar examples
  • Understanding is remembering in disguise. “No one can pour new ideas into a student’s head directly. Every new idea must build on ideas that the student already knows.” (p.92)

Willingham makes clear the contrast between:

  • Shallow Knowledge: Students have some understanding of the material but their understanding is limited – they can understand the concept only in the context
  • Deep Knowledge: Students know more about the subject and the pieces are more richly connected – “they are not just parts but also the whole.”

This makes knowledge transfer not impossible, but very difficult in most circumstances.

He suggests:

  • To help student comprehension, provide examples and ask students to compare them – provide lots of experiences, via lots of examples. Help students to think about deep structures.
  • Make deep knowledge the spoken and unspoken emphasis – “What kinds of questions do you pose in the class?”
  • Make your expectations for deep knowledge realistic – deep knowledge is hard-won and is the product of much practice.

My thoughts:

This chapter made me wonder how much of the new curriculum could be characterised as developing Deep Knowledge; making ‘rich connections’ and helping students see not just the “parts, but the whole’?

My notes:

Principle 5: It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice

There are two reasons for continued practice:

  1. To gain competence
  2. To improve

With three benefits:

  1. It reinforces the basic skills
  2. Protects against forgetting
  3. It improves transfer

Over time, with practice, mental processes can become automatised, requiring little or no WM capacity.

Practice the processes that need to become automatic – probably the building blocks of skills that will provide the most benefit if they are automatised.

Practice works better if it’s spaced out.

Fold practice into more advanced skills.

My thoughts:

Some learning is a chore, accept it, put in the hours, but don’t over do it. Explain to the students why: ‘Not everything worth learning is fun to learn, I promise I won’t ever waste your time.’

My Notes:

Principle 6: Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training.

This sentence sums up Willingham’s argument in this chapter in a nutshell, “In truth, no one thinks like a scientist or a historian without a great deal of training. This conclusion doesn’t mean that students should never try to write a poem or conduct a scientific experiment; but teachers should have a clear idea of what such assignments will do for students.” (p.128)

My Notes:

Principle 7: Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn

This chapter demolishes learning styles and multiple intelligences. Since I don’t care for either, and never did, I’m not going to summarise Willingham’s argument, other than to say he thinks they are both wrong and teachers should use their professional judgement to differentiate and ‘scaffold’ (my word) their lessons appropriately.

My Notes:

Principle 8: Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work

This chapter contains some useful advice for helping your students to think of intelligence as something they can improve through hard work and reflection.

“How can we improve intelligence?

  • Convince our students that intelligence can be improved
  • Genuinely ‘praise’ effort not ability (avoid insincere praise)
  • Treat failure as a natural part of learning (model this by highlighting your own mistakes)
  • Don’t take study skills for granted – “All students must learn new [study skills] like self-discipline, time management and resourcefulness (knowing what to do when they are stumped)” (p.185)

My Notes:

Principle 9: Teaching like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved


  • Apply the same principles to yourself as you do to the student’s you teach
  • It takes ten years to become an expert teacher
  • However, experience is not the same as deliberate practice
  • So, practice and reflect on your own work, get useful feedback
  • And practice more

My thoughts:

After reading this chapter I thought teachers who stop practicing are not worthy of the name and need to stop telling others how to do it.

In conclusion:

As I said at the very beginning, don’t take my word for it, go and buy the book. It is a good primer for some of the fundamental elements of good teaching and learning. However, it is an incomplete picture and a bit more honesty about the status of the science would have been welcome.

The following is a list of some of the other ‘fundamental’ elements, which are either entirely missing or given little prominence in Willingham’s narrative:

  • The role of imagination is completely ignored, except from the Einstein quote. Willingham doesn’t argue against imagination having a role in learning, he simply disregards it. It is tempting to say this is because cognitive scientists don’t currently understand the role played by imagination in learning, this is certainly the view of Kieran Egan [Ref], and it is undoubtedly a complex subject, however educators, authors and artists are well aware of its utility and don’t need to understand how it works in the human mind, to know it does.
  • There is very little discussion about the role of community. The teaching and learning process described in the book is fundamentally a private affair between the student and their mind, influenced by the teacher. Community is always there, lurking in the shadows, but it never brought out and given a place of importance. It would be easy to read, “Why don’t students…” and not think that human relationships, communities of learning or classroom environments had anything much to do with the process. Lave & Wenger, Situated Learning [Ref].
  • Similarly emotions – beyond simple pleasure and engagement – are generally ignored. The question of influence and power relationships in the classroom are completely absent. Although there is a welcome acknowledgement of the use of ‘praise’ for effort over ability, this is not expanded to include analyse of intrinsic motivation and agency. For more on this subject you might want to read Alfie Kohn, ‘Punished by Rewards’ [Ref] and Devine, Children, Power and Schooling [Ref].
  • He also doesn’t mention ‘active’ or ‘enactive’ learning of any kind. Students are static throughout his book, apart from sports, and the learning model is entirely centred on the mind. This is not unexpected, but still an oversight. Dorothy Heathcote [Ref.], an academic who taught in classrooms until the year she died at 86, would have had a thing or two to say about a learning theory that didn’t involve meaning making through action.

I love Venn diagrams, here is an approximation of what I’m trying to say:


Prof. Daniel T Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the application of findings from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K-12 education.” [Ref.]

You can find out more about Prof. Willingham on these two websites:




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