Why students turn off to school

Visiting elementary schools, cognitive scientist Dan Willingham meets eager first graders. By sixth grade, some students have turned off and tuned out. “They see school as a place where they fail and are made to feel ashamed,” he writes on Answer Sheet. What happened?

Language arts dominates the school day. A struggling reader gets little respite from “something that is unpleasant, unrewarding, and at which he feels a failure.”

Suppose that student would really like science, or history. He won’t know that, because the average third grader spends only about 6% of their academic time on each of those subjects.

A broad curriculum in early elementary school supports reading comprehension in later grades, Willingham argues. It also maximizes “the chances that students will find school engaging and rewarding.”

About Joanne


  1. Please read:

    The children at risk are the children at both ends of the spectrum: the slow learners and the fast learners. Our schools teach to the middle. There is out-of-the-mainstream Special Education for the slow learners, and there are some Advanced Placement classes for the fast learners, but there is nothing at all for “The Top Two Percent” of the students who are simply off-the-charts brilliant.

    My “NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences” proposal is an attempt to right that wrong through a determined nationwide effort.

    Steven A. Sylwester

  2. I agree with willingham. It’s hard to imagine how students will see the value of basic skills if they’re ultimately devoid of human content.

  3. Lots of children turn off to school not because of academic failure but for other reasons. He doesn’t seem to acknowlege that in his piece. Institutional settings come with a whole bunch of unique characteristics. Not all people respond to the same incentives in the the same manner (obviously). The rigidity and the inescapable qualities of the system are further reasons for disinterest. All kids need to have access to good quality education. But do all children need to be in institutional settings? See the prior post about the homeschool sabatical. We can offer more flexible educational options and still produce well educated children.

  4. It’s also really hard, if there’s peer pressure to be a slacker who earns Cs at best (as there was in my junior high) to stay engaged, because you’re pretty much an outcast. (And this was at a predominantly white, middle-class, small-town school).

    Also, if you’re a girl, it is (or at least, was, when I was in school) not cool to be “smart” – or at least not cool to get better grades than the boys.

  5. Bill Eccleston says:

    I am a middle school teacher and it strikes me as appalling the human environment we have created for schoolchildren during the past 40 years. Once upon a time, for a century, at least, there was a consensus about what constituted a mentally and physically healthy and productive school day. First, ample break time, exercise and fresh air. In the grammar school I attended the longest stretch we were in our seats was, appropriately, the two hours and fifteen minutes between the start of school and the morning 15 minute outdoor recess at ten o’clock. An hour and forty-five minutes later we were off for an hour at lunch. We then spent one hour in our seats from one to two o’clock, another 15 minute outdoor recess, then the last 45 minutes of the day in our seats until dismissal. The other component once universal in schools was light, lots of natural light coming in through large windows. Everything I know about the psychology of learning supports exactly this type of scheme for a maximally effective learning environment and personal environment. It’s hard to believe what we put K-8 children through today in contrast. No wonder kids, especially boys, dislike school. I loved school, mostly, because of the rich social environment that the break-times supported. That gone, I would hate school today. Elementary schools today are poor social and physical environments for children. Middle Schools are simply awful. They are jails. As a human environment, I am ashamed of the place I have spent my career. It is a terrible place for kids. We must re-engineer the school day K-8 according to the findings of learning psychology if we hope to improve academic performance.

  6. Bill Eccleston says:

    I forgot to include this: I would love to hear from a cognitive scientist on the points I have raised. Am I correct or not that cognitive science favors the ancient wisdom of the by-gone grammar school day? I would like to know Dan Willingham’s view.

  7. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Ditto to Bill Eccleston’s request.