Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Book Review: Why Don't Students Like School?

Rarely do I use my blog for a book review. As a matter of fact, this is the first time. But once in a while, a rare gem comes along that just screams "please tell others about it - it may save them in the future". This book is one of them.

It is authored not by a teacher or principal or a district official, although the title kind of implies it. It is written by Daniel Willingham, who has a doctorate from Harvard University in cognitive psychology. Why is this relevant? Simply because cognitive psychologists are true scientists, and their work is peer reviewed by other scientists before it gets published. Education schools are notorious for their lack of respect by the scientific community. Indeed, the recently published National Math Advisory Panel report observed that out of 17,000 education publications, less than 1% met the criteria for scientific validity. Enough said.

The book has a simple format. First, it is easily understood by an average reader. Each chapter introduces an assertion, followed by simple explanations and experimental evidence, followed by a Q&A section that has FAQs for teachers to modify their teaching techniques based on the assertion. What is novel here is that most of the assertions are exactly opposite of what the popular education school literature claims. I have listed a few nuggets below:

1. People are naturally curious, but they are not good thinkers: Why is this relevant? Because schools of education have focused on building "critical thinking" as one of their missions. However, if the brain is not designed well for thinking, it is good information to know. One needs to go to the following chapters to understand what is the secret of good critical thinkers.

2. Factual knowledge MUST precede skill: This is a corollary to the first assertion. Critical thinking needs factual knowledge first. Mathematical skills require mastery of multiplication facts. Throwing facts out just to concentrate on critical thinking is just not possible, because critical thinking is dependent on preceding factual knowledge. Indeed, critical thinkers tend to be only good in their narrow field of expertise (read - where they possess a lot of factual knowledge), and take a long time to gain the proficiency in a brand new field.

3. Memory is the residue of thought: This is a "duh" observation for me. What the mind dwells on the most, it tends to remember. This explains a lot, for example, why a few days after the test, those who cram for a test tend not to remember much of what they crammed. It may work to get a good grade on a test, but does not help retain what was learned.

4. New things are understood in the context of what we already know: This is the knowledge equivalent of "the rich getting richer". I had a boss once, a very smart fellow, who used to say "the brain is a difference engine". What he meant was that the brain internalizes what it knows with almost no effort, and leaves room to think about and interpret only the new information. So, those students who have been exposed to rich knowledge content early in their life tend to peel away from the rest of the pack very early. The author correlates this to the higher academic performance by those who come from families with educated parents, or higher socioeconomic background.

5. Proficiency requires practice: Another "duh" assertion. The author emphasizes that "It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice". Even experts need practice in basic skills sometimes, he says. I have observed that some mathematics curricula do not require extended practice, which is probably why they fail to produce results.

6. Cognition is fundamentally different in early and late training: Probably a corollary to assertion #4, although the author does not present it that way. A novice perceives new information in fundamentally different way than someone who is an expert. So, for example, emulating how scientists or mathematicians perform their jobs and trying to implement it in a classroom is bound to fail.

7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning: This assertion completely refutes one of the axioms used by curriculum designers, based on the theory of multiple intelligences, and multiple learning styles. The author does not deny that there are multiple abilities, but "intelligence" is a term he reserves for how quickly the brain can process information. This fundamental difference between the author and many of the theories based on which our schools are designed, is tremendously significant. The author has one big thing going for him - results. Math curricula designed for direct instruction (a certain type of pedagogy) have consistently outperformed curricula designed around the theory of multiple intelligences and multiple learning styles.

8. Intelligence can be changed with sustained hard work: And you thought heavy lifting was only good for building six-pack abs. This assertion refutes another assumption prevalent in education schools - that intelligence is static. One is either born to be good in math or not. This has a huge implication of how students get rewarded. In a simple experiment, students who were praised for how hard they worked performed better in the long run than students who were praised for being "smart".

9. Teaching is a complex cognitive skill, and can be improved: In other words, follow the first eight rules, and one can be a good teacher. This assertion leaves a glimmer of hope for those who had subject knowledge in math, science or another area of specialty, but convinced themselves that they "just ain't got it" when it comes to teaching.

All in all, the book, at a short 165 pages, was very much worth the read. Highly recommended. Five stars! (out of five)


tessika said...

As a newer teacher who just enrolled in a leadership program, this seems right up my alley. Thanks for the tip and I will check it out!

Try To think Not Rant said...

Thank you for a good book review. I came across the author recently. He wrote a column in Scientific American on the public's conflicting perception of scientists.