In which I review ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ by Daniel T. Willingham

While it is entirely possible, even as a member of the UK teaching profession, to review Why Don’t Students Like School? outside of the context of Michael Gove’s championing of Willingham’s book[1], I have no intention of doing so – not least because, while Why Don’t Students Like School? had already come to my attention, it was Gove’s comments that led me, finally, to actually sit down and read it. Gove, of course, took as Willingham’s central thesis that students don’t like school because the level of challenge is too low, and that students can derive satisfaction from meeting, and successfully overcoming, high-level challenges. He then went on to argue that exams provide just this kind of high-level challenge: ‘“In his quite brilliant book “Why Don’t Students Like School”, he [Willingham] explains that students are more motivated to learn if they enjoy what he calls “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought”. And that is what exam success provides.’[2] Therefore, Gove argued, a focus on more rigorous testing will help students to like school.

Willingham, however, was quick to distance himself from some (though not all) of Gove’s comments[3], not least because Willingham’s book is about learning whereas Gove’s focus was on exams. As Willingham wrote: ‘It’s true that successful thought brings pleasure. The sort of effort I (and others) meant was the solving of a cognitive problem. Gove offers the example of a singer finishing an aria or a craftsman finishing an artefact. These works of creative productivity likely would bring the sort of pleasure I discussed. It’s less certain that the passing of examination would be “successful thought” in this sense. ‘Why? Because exams seldom call for the creative deployment of knowledge. Instead, they call for the straightforward recall of knowledge. That’s because it’s very difficult to write exams that call for creative responses, yet are psychometrically reliable and valid.’ Hopefully, this review will be at least marginally more true to Willingham’s intended meaning than was Gove’s speech.

Why Don’t Students Like School? is divided into nine chapters, each dealing with a different aspect of the learning process as understood by cognitive science. Three of these relate to the evidence of how the brain deals with encountering a new problem, three further chapters relate to the nature of expertise, and two others relate to how teachers should plan for differences among students. The chapters themselves are split in two – the first part of each chapter presents the evidence of cognitive science, of which Willingham is confident enough to claim: ‘Each principle is based on a great deal of data, not only on one or two studies. If any of these principles is wrong, something close to it is right. I don’t anticipate that in five years I will write a second edition of this book in which a chapter is deleted because new data have overturned the conclusion.’[4] The second part of each chapter, meanwhile, explores the implications of this evidence for classroom practice.

When we encounter a cognitive problem – a piece of information to be understood; a question to be answered – our brains will process it by looking for similar problems in our long-term memory. This, it turns out, is the key to understanding the learning process. Working memory (the part that deals with new information) can very quickly become overloaded. If the long-term memory doesn’t have access to a sufficient base of factual knowledge or structures within which to process this problem, then we will struggle to learn. For teachers, the challenge is to design learning activities that are pitched at the right level, just beyond student’s capabilities but in the context of knowledge, understanding and skills that they have already acquired. New concepts can be introduced by comparison with similar concepts; new questions can be answered by analogy with similar questions.

But how does something go from working memory to long-term memory? Willingham points out that students are more likely to learn something if they have to think about it. This might seem like a rather obvious point, but it does have important implications. If a Maths teacher tries to teach algebra using the example of mobile phone call charges, or a History teacher sets students the task to give a presentation on the Spanish Civil War using PowerPoint (both of which are Willingham’s examples), the risk is that the students will think primarily about mobile phones and PowerPoint, losing focus of what they were supposed to be learning.

Willingham suggests several strategies. Firstly, Willingham suggests placing some kind of narrative conflict at the centre of the learning process: ‘It’s plain that Gove agrees with me on this point, because he emphasized that exam preparation should not mean a dull drilling of facts, but rather should happen through “entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths.”’[5] Especially where certain concepts or skills are sufficiently important as to warrant being committed to long-term memory, they should be learned in the context of more advanced skills.

If a particular section of a course doesn’t lend itself to such an approach, Willingham is not averse to recommending the use of mnemonics. While emphasising that factual knowledge is a prerequisite of learning (a point that Gove also made), however, Willingham does caution against rote learning: ‘The only quibble I have with Gove on this topic is when he says “Memorisation is a necessary precondition of understanding.” I’d have preferred “knowledge,” to “memorisation” because the latter makes it sound as though one must sit down and willfully commit information to memory. This is a poor way to learn new information.’[6]

Secondly, parallel to Carol Dweck’s Mindset[7], learning takes place though practice. This has implications for the level of expertise that we should reasonably expect of our students. Expertise is the result of years of sustained practice, during which time event the most complex ideas have been committed to long-term memory, allowing for a much higher level of abstract thought and for what Willingham calls ‘knowledge creation’.[8] A more realistic expectation of students is ‘knowledge comprehension’[9] – that is, for them to ‘develop a deep understanding of existing theory’.[10] This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect students to understand how knowledge is created, just that we shouldn’t expect them to be able to do it themselves. Creative tasks can sometimes be appropriate (Willingham uses the example of science fairs), but we should anticipate that the main benefit to students will probably be motivational and that perhaps we should judge them on the effort that they make rather than the level of expertise demonstrated by their output.

The emphasis on practice also has implications for differentiation. After pointing out the lack of evidence for VAK theory, and suggesting that Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’ would be better termed ‘talents’ – that is, some people are naturally better at one thing, while other people are naturally better at other things – Willingham concludes that the similarities between students’ learning styles outweigh the differences. Granted, some students start school with a head start on others in terms of general intelligence but, by the time students leave school and reach adulthood, the main factor that will explain differences in intelligence is practice.

Thirdly, and finally, Willingham that teachers should encourage students to treat failure as part of the learning process: ‘Try to create a classroom atmosphere in which failure while not desirable, is neither embarrassing nor wholly negative. Failure means you’re about to learn something.’[11] This is probably Gove’s most significant point of departure from Willingham’s book. As mentioned above, Why Don’t Students Like School? is about the learning process, whereby where students make progress through the cycle of draft-feedback-redraft and without fear of failure, whereas Gove’s focus was on assessment at the end of the learning process rather than as part of it.

As for the ninth chapter, to which I have so far only alluded, its focus is not on students but on teachers, although the conclusions are still the same: teachers develop expertise through sustained practice, experimentation and feedback. Indeed, teachers should actively aim to model this mindset as a way of cultivating it in students. Willingham suggests working with an improvement partner, videoing each other teaching then watching the video back together while offering constructive feedback, and keeping a learning diary of your various successes and failures. To this list, we might add signing up to Twitter and starting a blog.


[1] J. Burns (2012) ‘Exam success makes children happy, argues Gove’, (site accessed 29 January 2013)

[2] DfE (2012), ‘Secretary of State gives speech to IAA’, (site accessed 29 January 2013)

[3] D. T. Willingham (2012) ‘Did Michael Gove Get the Science Right?’, (site accessed 29 January 2013)

[4] D. T. Willingham (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For The Classroom (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass) p.211

[5] Willingham (2012)

[6] Willingham (2012)

[7] C. Dweck (2012) Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential (London, Robinson). I should admit here that I haven’t actually read this yet – it’s on my Kindle waiting for me to get around to reading it – so this footnote is here because of what other people have written about Dweck’s book, rather than what I have read in it.

[8] Willingham (2009) p.141

[9] Willingham (2009) p.141

[10] Willingham (2009) p.141

[11] Willingham (2009) p.184


About carljphillips

Geography teacher. PhD in cultural/historical geography (Nott'm., 2006). SF/F genre fiction fan. Liverpool FC supporter. Libertarian. Humanist. Etc. I blog about the theory and practice of Geography teaching, and teaching in general.
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2 Responses to In which I review ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ by Daniel T. Willingham

  1. Pingback: In which I encourage students to ‘level up’ | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

  2. Pingback: In which I review ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn | Forwards, Not Backwards. Upwards, Not Forwards.

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