Why students don’t like school

21 08 2009

Just listened to this interesting discussion on Daniel Willingham’s new book – “Why students don’t like school” and made a crude summary of the points I found interesting below.
Much better to listen to the actual interview as my wording has quite possibly changed the meaning of a few of his points but here it is anyway.

Cognitive sweet spot – people like learning new things but only under certain circumstances. Learning has to be challenging but not too hard or too easy. Can be difficult to set challenging activities for a mixed ability class of 30 students that hit the ‘cognitive sweet spot” for all students. If activities are not in this cognitive sweet spot then is unlikely to be interesting or engaging for student.

21st century learning/skills – goals of 21st century skills are great but question is that the goals are not new so why is it going to be different this time. Has been tried previously and failed. Higher order thinking skills are important but are not new. Technology is a small part of 21st century learning. Major thrust is about problem solving, critical thinking and collaboration which is not new. Current circumstances make these skills more important than in the past for school leavers but is not convinced current models are the right ones.

Constructivist approaches (student centred – we construct knowledge by building on prior knowledge. Learn best by discovering and doing things and relating to prior experiences) – The argument seems to be that the learning should look like the mental processes but does not necessarily agree to this. Get into trouble when we use the theory to influence models of pedagogy. When we leap to the idea that we construct everything so we let the student do a lot of that constructing. Can be very inefficient to have learners discovering simple concepts and ideas. Whether we use discovery learning, guided discovery or direct instruction they are still constructing knowledge. Cannot have a ‘passive receptor’ of knowledge. It is possible to have very effective lecture style, didactic learning and possible to have very poor learning this way – just as it is possible to have great & poor student centred learning activities.
You can’t think critically about something unless you have a strong background knowledge. Back to basic vs 21 st century skills- need them both – need a good knowledge of facts to be able to really develop higher order skills.
21st century advocates would argue that the balance has been to heavy around facts and looking for a better balance.
The way that accountability has been handled means that examinations dominate the education landscape as the key accountability measure. These largely encourage learning bits and pieces of knowledge that are not integrated. Fact collecting and fact teaching.

Multiple intelligence – different people have different abilities – importance of goals in using multiple intelligence theory in schooling. Gardner says that just because there are multiple intelligences does not mean that you have to teach to them all in schools – depends on the goals of schooling – economic, self actualisation, social etc. Eg economic – would not focus on all intelligences – self actualisation – would try and develop them all.

Can’t cover everything in schools – better to cover a limited amount of material and develop in students a deeper understanding of that material. eg maths – cover 6 or 7 topics and repeat them over 4 yrs. Better performing countries cover limited topics but develop deeper understanding. Procedural knowledge is developed in drill and repetition but students lacking conceptual knowledge. Once taken out of context students struggle to apply the knowledge.

Technology – will it change the way we think – Web 2.0 tools – the fact they exist will not change things – it will depend on whether we can find ways to leverage them in a way that is useful. Greater possibility for more interaction but someone still needs to know something – much more information available . Greatly increases the burden on the student to differentiate the interesting and useful information from the non-useful. There are more opportunities for learning – still need to be able to differentiate the information.

I think I expected him to be an advocate for technology and new models of schooling based on the name of the book only. It was refreshing to come across some ideas challenging some of the accepted wisdoms of learning and I am currently going through his website and digging up lots of other interesting stuff.

Brad