Friday, May 2, 2014

Why Students Don't Like School

Our leadership team has been studying the comments from a book Why Don't Students Like School:  
A Cognitive Scientist Answers the Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham.

I love the discussion around student learning because the key areas of emphasis about learning we find in this book have challenged our assumptions.

Assumption #1:  Critical thinking is a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.

The reality is students need background knowledge in order to take the facts and knowledge they learn to a deeper level.  We still need facts in processing the deeper thinking.  In fact, studies have shown students with greater background knowledge on a subject will outperform better readers with less background knowledge!

Assumption #2:  Trying to make the material relevant to students' interests is a key to their learning.

This turns out to be not true.  This in of itself does not work.  What does work is making meaning of the lesson, content and material.  Interest of itself does not lead to learning.  What seems to work best is getting students to think more about the question (active learning) instead of giving them the answer.  Learning is affected by many factors, but the one factor that trumps the rest is students remember what they think about.  Creating powerful lessons and opportunities for students to think about the meaning is the key.  The meaning may or may not be relevant to their own interests.  Getting them to think about the meaning is more important.

Assumption #3:  It is always smart to tell a child he/she is smart.

The opposite is true.  It is never smart to tell a child he/she is smart.  Why?  It is because academic work and achievement is more about effort than innate intelligence.  If a child believes he is smart, what does he think when he does not do well?  Since it is innate intelligence, there is not much he can do to improve.  Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.  The effect of environment on intelligence is significant.  The point is for all students and teachers is every student can achieve and improve.  There are no limits on student learning since it is not fixed by our intelligence.

Assumption #4:  Matching the preferred modality of a student gives that student an edge in learning.

This is found also to be not true.  Studies have not confirmed this to be true.  The reality is students have much more in common in their learning than differences.  The recommendation is to teach to a variety of modalities, but it is not necessarily a benefit of students to teach to just one modality perceived to be their "strongest."

So What?
These are the four highlighted assumptions of a few more that stand out in the book.  What are the implications for teaching and learning? With the new common core and the challenge to take students to deeper and more meaningful thought, we have to make even more efforts to ensure all students have the background knowledge (includes facts, memorization and automaticity in reading and math).  We do not abandon teaching and learning that produces rote learning and memorization.  This also emphasizes the idea of employing effective practice and repetition.

The other implication is for us to prepare lessons that are meaningful with the right types of questioning and challenging exercises that involve kids in their thinking.

And lastly, an important shift in our thinking and actions has to be for every student and teacher to know learning and achieving academically is much more about our effort than our intelligence.