Why Don’t Students Like School?

The beginning of June brings the onset of summer vacation for children across the United States. The excitement bubbling in their young hearts is easy to understand yet also offers a valuable opportunity to reflect on why students tend to dislike school. Of course, arguably, few humans happily seek assignments and work, but why do some students, especially older students, lose the enjoyment of attending school? As naturally curious creatures, why do many humans quickly grow to despise an institution designed to serve and improve them?

University of Virginia professor and cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham sought to answer that very question and thereby wrote the book that should be at the very top of every parent, teacher, and principal’s summer reading list: Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for Your Classroom.

In just 165 pages, Willingham pulls off in his newly released book two feats heretofore assumed impossible: For starters, he synthesizes decades of technical findings in cognitive psychology in prose not only comprehensible to the layman but enjoyable, too.

Then, like a laser, Willingham cuts through multiple thorny and perpetual educational debates. Armed with clear explanations, examples, and top-line research, Willingham shows that many of these debates are actually over, or should be, as many long-held beliefs regarding education are simply false.

Did you know for instance that praising a child for being smart only succeeds in making him dumb? Did you know that an effective attention-getter at the beginning of a lesson is a surefire way to ruin a child’s concentration? Did you know that adjusting lessons for "visual," "auditory," and "kinesthetic" learners is an exercise in futility since they don’t really exist? Did you know that attempting to relate a subject to the "child’s world" will most often destroy interest?

Based solely on the previous paragraph, there are now undoubtedly many educationists running to break out worn clich├ęs to attack Willingham. Stale cries against "drill and kill," "boring," and "old" pedagogy will be unleashed unfairly and inaccurately to marginalize Willingham and the truths he explains. This reaction will be tragic because Willingham is not offering yet another diatribe from any particular educational or political camp. Rather, he eloquently reports on nine principles "that are so fundamental to the mind’s operation that they do not change as circumstances change. They are as true in the classroom as they are in the laboratory and therefore can reliably be applied to classroom situations."

Willingham has two straightforward goals: to "tell you how your students’ minds work, and to clarify how to use that knowledge to be a better teacher." He masterfully succeeds at both.

Each of Willingham’s chapters revolve around a crucial question, so readers will discover not only why students don’t like school, but why students remember TV shows and forget school lessons (memory is a residue of thought), whether drilling is worth it (it is), and how to get students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians (you can’t immediately). Willingham’s explication in chapter three of why teachers must "pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about)" has literally revolutionary power to improve schools if only it were widely applied.

Willingham opens his book Cognition by stating that a "long-standing goal of human inquiry is to understand ourselves." His book will appeal to all for just that reason. Most importantly though, Willingham correctly notes that it "would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children." This was the purpose of Why Don’t Students Like School? and is the reason this book is essential for anyone concerned about education.

Students understandably dislike school for a host of reasons, but we needlessly design our lessons against the grain of what we know about the human mind. Using just a brief part of the summer to learn from Willingham will make looking forward to the next school year a real possibility for students and teachers alike.

Jason R. Edwards, Ph.D. is an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College, a fellow with The Center for Vision & Values, and Grove City College’s director for educational policy studies.