Thinking and learning

Dan Willingham’s new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, gets a rave review in the Wall Street Journal.

A cognitive scientist, Willingham explains how teachers can use what we know about thinking to enhance learning.  For example: Is drilling worth it?

The answer is yes, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics. Another question: “What is the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?” According to Mr. Willingham, this goal is too ambitious: Students are ready to understand knowledge but not create it. For most, that is enough. Attempting a great leap forward is likely to fail.

. . . Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is not in favor of merely making learning “fun” or “creative.” He advocates teaching old-fashioned content as the best path to improving a student’s reading comprehension and critical thinking.

Why Don’t Students Like School? is “one of the most important education books of our time,” writes Bill Evers on his Ed Policy blog.

See more here on what Willingham thinks teachers should know about cognitive science.

About Joanne


  1. Willingham’s focus on the development and use of “existing knowledge” is integral to teaching, especially in terms of reading. Students access new information by connecting it to old information. Willingham’s explanation of how the brain is “not designed to think” is truly compelling in this regard.

    The implications for this in terms of reading instruction (or reading assignment as is far too often the case) is well explained in two great books by Denver-area teacher and writer Cris Tovani. They are “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It” and “Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?” I’d also recommend “Mosaics of Thought” by Ellin Keene, who is a contemporary of Tovani and a fellow research with the Public Education Business Coalition (PEBC).

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    I believe if someone from the late 1800s read this they would
    say hogwash…let’s see…”adolescence” was invented roughly 100 years ago…before forced schooling, time in the classroom could be measured in weeks not months…college attendance was the exception…apprenticeships were abundant…kids came to school knowing how to read, write and do math…expectations were high…the curriculum was in many ways much harder than it is today…high school for many (most?) was not needed…

    School has become easier over the past 100 plus years…why? Because so many people depend on others to raise their children rather than take responsibility for their children knowing the basics — reading, writing, math, manners, before the go to school.

  3. Ponderosa says:


    I’d be interested to hear how you see Willingham and Tovani to be in agreement. Yes, Tovani stresses the importance of background knowledge, but as something to be “activated” when a child reads, not developed through years of content-rich instruction (I’m skeptical that this “activating” really needs to be done if the kid already has relevant background knowledge). She goes on to advocate a host of other reading strategies to be used in conjunction with “activating background knowledge” –giving the impression that competent reading is largely a matter of deploying an arsenal of reading strategies. Willingham himself writes about the very limited value of teaching reading strategies. A one-time lesson can produce a small uptick, but after that, more drills in reading strategies are a waste of time. Unfortunately, some schools (like a high school where I once taught) create whole courses designed around utilization of Tovani’s strategies, thinking they’ve found the Holy Grail of reading improvement. California’s Tovani is Kate Kinsella, who’s had a profound impact on textbooks and educators in this state. It seems to me these reading strategies advocates, though they do talk a bit about background knowledge, actually militate against developing curricula that actually build up background knowledge, because they convey the sense that their strategies provide a short-cut to reading proficiency.

  4. I realize Tovani and Willingham diverge on the idea of “reading strategies,” though they are in complete agreement on what Tovani cites as the first and most important “strategy” and that is “readers use existing knowledge to make sense of new information.” Willingham doesn’t note it as a “strategy” when he mentions it, nor when he is criticizing the reliance on “strategies.”

    Clearly, any attempt to push an agenda for “strategies” outside of the core of gaining knowledge is ineffective, and I would disavow any attempt to do so. However, I have never known Tovani to “disavow” the acquisition of core knowledge, even as she endorses strategies to assist struggling readers who may lack it. I’ve used her approach with great success, even in my AP Language class.

    Thus, I think there is room at the table for both.

  5. Tim-10-ber, do you have any evidence that in the late 1800s most children came to school already knowing how to read and write?
    Where did they learn this from if their parents were illiterate? The accounts I have read of the history of education included from the start schools being expected to teach their students how to read and write, see for example this history of the ragged schools.

    Rich parents may have hired a tutor or a governess to teach their children at home either their whole childhoods or for a few years before sending them to boarding school, and less-rich but educated parents may have taught their children at home themselves, but the idea that all parents did so seems unlikely.

    And do you have any evidence to support your statement that time in the classroom was measured in weeks, not months? In M.V. Hughes’ autobiographies A London Child of the 1870s, and A London Girl of the 1880s she describes attending school for months at a time and studies at school for years.

    …apprenticeships were abundant…

    And in England the standard apprenticeship length was 7 years. You work a 40 hour week 50 weeks a year for 7 years, you’ve done 14,000 hours, well above the 10,000 hours of practice that appears necessary for expertise, judging by Willingham’s book.

    …college attendance was the exception…

    Yes, the single-sex girls high school in the school hall had boards up listing every ex-student to get a degree from when the school opened in the 1880s to about the 1950s when they apparently ran out of space to add more names as the numbers getting a degree took off.

    expectations were high…the curriculum was in many ways much harder than it is today…

    And a lot of students dropped out.

    high school for many (most?) was not needed

    I don’t think anyone *needs* high school. But who wants to live a life where you only get to do what you need to do?

  6. gbl3rd says:

    Tracy W

    “And in England the standard apprenticeship length was 7 years. You work a 40 hour week 50 weeks a year for 7 years, you’ve done 14,000 hours, well above the 10,000 hours of practice that appears necessary for expertise, judging by Willingham’s book.”

    Of course! Why would an apprenticeship be free?

    Students had to work for their masters to pay for their instruction, use of tools and materials. According to some accounts it was typical to work for years before they began their instruction. I believe the work week and work day were also longer.

  7. Tracy W says:

    Yep, the work week and day was longer than my 40 hours a week, 50 hours a year. My numbers were purely setting a lower bound on the amount of time an apprenticeship would take.