Why Don’t Students Like School?


For this month’s book review, I’ll be taking a look at the very popular Why Don’t Students Like School? by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. Having earned his PhD in cognitive psychology from Harvard University, Willingham’s research has focused on learning in the brain. Author of the popular column “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” published in American Educator, he is rightly placed on many teacher’s Mount Rushmore of educational figures. In addition to the selection in question, Willingham has authored When Can You Trust the Experts (2012), Raising Kids Who Read (2015) and The Reading Mind (2017).

One of the key figures in the effort to bring cognitively sound principles into the classroom, Willingham’s book is at the top of many teachers’ list of books that helped them become more aware of evidence-based practices. Willingham’s background in cognitive psychology, combined with his clear style of writing, uniquely positions him as a great communicator of the principles he chooses to explicate in this, his most recognized work.

Each chapter begins with a question about learning to be answered by Willingham. First, he addresses the question with pertinent information grounded in cognitive science and then introduces a cognitive principle which will guide the information throughout the rest of the chapter. He finishes each chapter with the implications that these cognitive principles have for the classroom. He also includes further reading suggestions, divided into less technical and more technical categories, followed by discussion questions for the reader.

So, why don’t students like school? In the opening chapter, Willingham answers this question by explaining that thinking, as in using reason to solve problems or create something new, isn’t exactly an easy thing for humans to do. His first cognitive principle is that “people are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” Though we may prize our brains as that which separates us from other animals, our intuitive sense that our first-person experience is one in which we are constantly engaged in thinking isn’t exactly accurate. Instead, we should give memory and pattern recognition the credit they are due.

This first cognitive principle informs much of what comes in the rest of the book, slowly unfolding to reveal several other simple truths about the way our minds work. This isn’t to say that the book deals only in abstract ideas of cognitive science. To the contrary, and to the help of anyone reading the book, Willingham ends each chapter with implications for the classroom which include advice for how to apply the principle and a series of questions which help to bring the abstract into the realm of the concrete.

Throughout the rest of the book, Willingham touches on a slew of topics which have since become part of the toolbelt of many teachers who have endeavored to use a more evidence-based approach to the classroom. Whether it be the emphasis of knowledge over skills, the importance of sequencing knowledge so that it builds off of previously taught material, the importance of retrieval practice to learning, or his much repeated truism that “memory is the residue of thought,” the book is a tour de force of practical advice that teachers can learn from at any stage of their career. His explanations of cognitive science and how it applies to the classroom provides teachers with a foundation to build their practice on.

The book is on less solid ground, though, when Willingham strays a bit from the research. Chapter 8 of the book sets out to answer the question “How can I help slow learners?” and focuses on the principle that “children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.” The impression created in this chapter is that this is a settled issue, but this is far from the case; many to most intelligence researchers argue that intelligence remains stable across the lifespan. Additionally, the chapter focuses on the ideas of grit and growth mindset which, despite the enthusiasm surrounding these ideas in recent years, have not been established as habits you can inculcate at scale in students. 

Key Ideas 

  • Thinking is hard, which is why we should encourage students to rely on memory whenever possible.
  • An accumulation of factual knowledge is the key to skill development. To focus solely on general skills such as “critical thinking” or “creativity” isn’t helpful.
  • Students won’t remember what they haven’t thought about in a focused manner, so a teacher should do what they can to ensure they’re focusing on the correct things and focusing on them often.
  • Learning styles and multiple intelligences are not the panacea we might hope for them to be for struggling learners. In fact, most people learn in pretty much the same way.
  • There are good and bad uses of technology in the classroom, so proceed with caution.

Is it worth reading?

Despite some of the flaws detailed above, I remain steadfast in the opinion that this is perhaps the best book to read as an introduction to solid cognitive principles for how to ensure quality teaching practice in the classroom. The first seven chapters in particular are as good as anything ever written on the subject. Willingham’s ability to boil complex ideas down to their essentials and communicate them to a general audience of non-experts is a gift to anyone who is interested in applying the evidence from cognitive science to guide their practice.

Jason A. Furey
Jason A. Furey is a high-school English teacher from Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to Chalkboard Review and has been published in City Journal and National Review.