The genius of DT Willingham and WDSLS.

This week I received a delivery of Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School 2nd Edition from the bookshop and I’ve been reading through it, taking it in, refreshing my connection with the key ideas. It’s not a ‘Book 2’ but very much an updated version of the orginal. There’s an additional chapter on technology and some extra reflection questions at the end of chapters but, happily, it’s largely the same text. I absolutely love it. It can be an overblown statement that a book is a ‘must-read’ but there is no other single text that explores so comprehensively and clearly, the nature of learning and the challenges that students and teachers experience. The ideas in the book are certainly ideas that all teachers should know about and, in Willingham’s hands, you won’t find a better explanation of the learning problems that arise in schools and the solutions that we can pursue to overcome them.

A reasonable starting point for a time-poor teacher might be to read this American Educator article that Dan Willingham wrote to link to the first edition’s publication:

Why Don’t Students Like School as featured in American Educator. Download it here.

It was an obvious decision for Oliver Caviglioli and I to include Why Don’t Students Like School in our selection of seminal works to summarise in our Walkthrus book. We’ve adopted this schematic diagram which is essentially a re-drawing of the simple memory model that Willingham introduces us to and explores throughout the book in chapters such as ‘Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say?’

It’s an impossible and unwise task to summarise a book satisfactorily when it’s one that should be read in its entirety so we decided to pick out five key ideas that might have wide resonance for lots of teachers, hopefully as a way of highlighting the power of this great book. Each of these ideas can be explained by referring to the memory model. Far from being a simplistic model – lazily characterised as such in some quarters – it helps to explore a wide range of key ideas, linking the visible real world of teachers and students to the hidden world of the our brains; it brings cognitive psychology into focus as a way to explain what we experience every day in a classroom.

Here are the five things we chose to focus on:

Memory is the residue of thought.

DW suggests that the importance of reviewing each lesson in terms of what students will think about it possibly the single most useful insight teachers can gain from cognitive psychology. Why? Firstly, because knowledge is so important – DW makes the case brilliantly – and secondly, because the way we accumulate knowledge, build schema, learn things we can do or use later, or develop understanding is through thinking. Thinking is the action; ‘storage’ of knowledge in memory is an outcome.

However, thinking needs some management if it is to engage all students’ curiosity in a helpful direction towards the curriculum goals. They need to be engaged in solving problems that they have a good chance of being able to solve, harnessing prior knowledge, making sense and new meaning from the concrete experiences and ideas they think about.

DW is superb at showing the many ways we can end up thinking about superfluous or distracting events and ideas with multiple implications for teachers in constructing tasks that support the learning we’re aiming for.

The power of stories

There’s a superb thread in the book about the role narrative structures play in how we successfully connect ideas, maintain curiosity, channel our thinking and focus on what things mean. DW explores the structure of stories using these 4Cs – conflict, causality, complications and character – suggesting that we can harness them in various curriculum scenarios; they are interesting, easy to remember and are easy to understand because we know how stories work. All of this allows students to understand the meaning of ideas more successfully. (See this more detailed post – with some great video examples. )

Understanding is remembering in disguise

I love this idea – particularly as I’ve had too many frustrating discussions over the years with folk seeking to pitch ‘understanding’ as somehow transcending or even bypassing merely ‘knowing things’. DW to the rescue. In fact, we can only learn new things by using things we already know, most of which is concrete rather than abstract. Understanding – that capacity to explain underlying patterns and deeper structures – emerges through the slow and deliberate engagement with multiple concrete examples that allow us to establish connections.

There is nothing you can be said to understand that doesn’t involve remembering. It’s helpful to then think of increasing our depth of understanding through making more and more connections, each of which is remembered as part of giving an explanation.

Deep knowledge is the goal; shallow knowledge comes first.

DW explores the concept of shallow knowledge as distinct from ‘rote knowledge’. Rote knowledge is as basic as knowing some words – eg a quote or definition – without actually knowing their meaning or value. Shallow knowledge has meaning – eg knowing some details of a particular poem. It has value. However Deep knowledge is the real goal – eg knowing some general structural or language features of various genres of poetry, so that we can apply knowledge to different scenarios.

DW suggests that deep knowledge can take time to accumulate – often over years – so we need to play a long game. Shallow knowledge provides a stepping stone to deep knowledge. However, it’s important to make deep knowledge the explicit goal, with implications for the questions and assignments we set. If students only need shallow knowledge to complete a task, it sends a message that this is all that’s required.

The power of practice.

In a superb chapter ‘Is Drilling Worth It?’ DW explores the important role of varied forms of repetition and practice in securing learning. This has value for numerous reasons:

  1. making learning automatic, thereby supporting further learning
  2. to make memory long lasting
  3. to make it more likely that knowledge will transfer to other situations.

DW explores the idea that teachers need to vary the nature of practice – to extend the range of connections being practised and to keep it interesting. It’s also important to recognise that here’s simply not enough time to practise everything to the same extent so we need to pick good options – areas of learning that, through becoming more automatic, have a powerful impact.

Obviously there’s a lot more in Why Don’t Students Like School – this selection is chosen just to give a flavour. It is certainly a book that warrants being read in full and yet it’s still the case that most teachers in any given gathering haven’t yet read it – even when they’ve heard of it. I recommend it in nearly every talk I give on evidence-informed teaching and continually find new ways that the ideas weave into the various issues that arise in schools and colleges.

Helpfully, there’s a neat summary of the key ideas at the end of the book. The first edition summary is here:

One thing Dan Willingham is noted for is his debunking of the VAK learning styles nonsense. He covers it superbly in WDSLS. This video gives a flavour:

Thanks to Dan Willingham for sharing his insights in such an accessible and engaging manner. Very few books or sets of ideas get anywhere near the level of influence that Why Don’t Students Like School has had and re-reading the new edition has reiterated exactly why that is. Not read it yet? Get yourself a copy and dive in.


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