Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T. Willingham


The “Year of the Common Core” has caused teachers and parents to think much more about how children learn, what they should be learning, when they should be learning it, and the best way to teach it in school. At the same time we have to remember that everything we learn is not the result of explicit instruction and that everything that is important to learn cannot be assessed with paper and pencil. Watching what young children learn as they  is a prime example. In Why Don’t Children Like School? , Daniel Willingham shares what is known to stimulate and maintain curiosity, facilitate memory, and to develop problem-solving skills.

We tend to have skewed views about children’s ability to learn based on a small sample of facts and skills which society and school have deemed to be important such as learning our letters, learning to read, and memorizing number facts. These are not things that we have evolved to learn – not to say that they aren’t important in the 21st century. As Willingham states: “Your brain serves many purposes, and thinking is not the one it serves best. Your brain also supports the ability to see and to move, for example, and these functions operate much more efficiently and reliably than your ability to think. It’s no accident that most of your brain’s real estate is devoted to these activities. The extra brain power is needed because seeing is actually more difficult than playing chess or solving calculus problems.”

The human species has been successful for a combination of reasons. Among these are our ability to adapt, our development of language, and our problem-solving skills. Scientists believe that human intelligence has not changed in thousands of years, but the balance of how we use our intelligence has changed from being active and doing to being sedentary and thinking. Having ADHD has its advantages – but not in a first grade classroom. As Willingham states: “thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain. Nevertheless, people like to think – or more properly, we like to think if we judge that the mental work will pay off with the pleasurable feeling we get when we solve a problem.”

Teaching is about students understanding, remembering, and applying what is being taught as leadership is about people agreeing and working together. But what if the leader hasn’t developed the group’s interest in a project? “Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.” We are less interested in an answer and think about it less when we haven’t become engaged by a question.


One of the biggest challenges in teaching is that factual knowledge must precede skill. We can’t read without learning the letters and words. Doctors can’t solve problems without the necessary knowledge. We can’t discuss the causes of the American Revolution without knowing what was happening and what people were thinking in the 18th century. Cognitive science teaches us that factual knowledge and thinking skills are best taught together. It isn’t phonics or whole language; it is phonics and whole language together. Research confirms that reading comprehension is dependent on the integration of the material within a passage and the reader’s prior knowledge. One of the contributing factors to the “fourth-grade slump”, when children from underprivileged homes tend to start to fall behind in reading, is that their reservoir of background knowledge is not as deep.

The object of learning is the retention of information and the skills to use the information to solve problems. While there are methods to enhance retention, research clearly demonstrates that we tend to remember the things we think about. Our natural predilection for stories aids retention and “the emotional bond between students and teacher – for better or worse – accounts for whether students learn.”


Another important type of memory is working memory which is often associated with multi-tasking. We hear about the perils of multi-tasking but as Alex Pang wrote in The Distraction Addiction, there is a distinction between multi-tasking and split-tasking. Many things we do require multi-tasking and working memory. I have chosen to write this draft in “longhand”. This requires remembering how to form the letters and how to spell the words while thinking about what to write. This is a bigger challenge for children than is generally understood. Writing and spelling have not become automatic for them. We have a limited ability to expand our working memory, but our function improves when the component skills become automatic. Children will not be able to express themselves in writing – or want to do so – until the act of writing has become automatic.


New teacher assessments were introduced in the same year as the Core Curriculum while teachers and school districts were not provided with preparation or assistance from the state to teach in this new method. Teacher performance is so important to the future of our children that it must be evaluated, but an accurate instrument has not been developed. Assisting teachers may be more valuable (see Building a Better Teacher). Daniel Willingham’s following statement is an excellent closing thought; one which will not be covered by any teacher assessment. “Ask ten people you know, ‘Who was the most important teacher in your life?’ I’ve asked dozens of people this question and have noticed two interesting things. First, most people have a ready answer. Second, the reason that one teacher made a strong impression is almost always emotional. The reasons are never things like ‘She taught me a lot of math.’ People say things like ‘She made me believe in myself’ or ‘She taught me to love knowledge.’”