From Research to Practical Applications: Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?


OK. First, the title of the book is dorky. And it is a little misleading.

Second, if you are a teacher, run out and get a copy. Quick. Because this book takes 9 well-proven findings from neuroscience, explains them in plain English and then tells you what the implications are for your classroom.  There is not much that is new here, especially if you have had your ear to the tracks the last few years, or if you have read one of several other books about the brain and how it works,  such as the Brain Rules. But unlike many books, this one is especially written for teachers by someone who spends a lot of time working with teachers–he also writes the Ask the Cognitive Scientist column for American Educator magazine, where you can find this article that appeared last year and is basically the first chapter of the book.

The 9 principles that are covered in the book were selected because they are well-established, are always true either in the lab or the classroom, and can have important consequences if acknowledged or ignored. They are, therefore, cognitive “rules” for teaching and learning. Each unit deals with one principle and starts with a question, such as “Why is it so difficult to make school enjoyable for students?” The principle is then introduced and explained. Following that are several suggestions under the heading Implications for the Classroom. And each unit ends with two lists of references, less and more technical–something which is very much appreciated in a world where many authors assume readers do not want or need references (Yes, Rick Lavoie, I’m talking to you).

Here are the 9 principles:

  1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
  2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  3. Memory is the residue of thought.
  4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  5. Proficiency requires practice.
  6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
  7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
  8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

Well-organized, to the point, and with a clear description of what the research has to say about what you should be doing or not doing in your classroom, this book is well worth a little of your time.

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