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.





5 responses

23 08 2009
Alan McManus

A number of points strike me about the comments.
1. learning is all about individuals. Relevance, making meaning, depth of understanding etc relate to the individual learner rather than the group or co-hort, so what are the implications for a class of 30. our teaching, our expectations and assessment ?????
2. Technology today is simply another learning tool and can be used to enhance learning or inhibit learning. It all depends on HOW it is used.
3. Independent, self directed learning is a very mis-understood term/process and as used by some can be a very destructive learning tool. There need to be the “guide on the side”, directing, proding and pointing students in the right direction.
4. There is and always will be a place for didactic learning

25 08 2009
Simon Abernethy

Thanks for the summary Brad.

The aspect I find most striking when reading what Brad has posted, is our present curriculum. The current NSW curriculum is just too busy with content. Since traveling to Perth for our recent conference, I have been examining curriculum for the states of QLD, VIC & WA and it’s safe to say we’re world’s apart. NSW leads the way in many educational initiatives, but unfortunately it’s focus on a very content driven curriculum does not appear to be one of them.

The word is that the new National Curriculum for English, Maths, HSIE and Science (currently being drafted) will be a significant change from what we are used to. Sure it may be outcomes based and contain the ‘Learn Abouts’ and ‘Learn Tos’ but my prediction is that the content will be significantly reduced. Stage based learning outcomes are gone. ‘Syllabuses’ (oh yeah that term is gone now too, deemed too NSW. I think ‘curricular’ is now the national term) will be presented as year groups eg Year 7 Maths, Year 8 Maths etc.

Brad’s summary points to the fact that we can’t teach everything; and research agrees by recommending that we reduce the quantity of content being taught and promote deeper understanding. We get better learning that can be applied to new situations.

To develop independent, self directed learners we must first provide significant ‘explicit’ teaching and give students a real grounding. Effective constructivist approaches do not begin by cutting students lose and expecting them to be independent and creative. I agree with Alan when he suggests that there will always be a place of for didactic learning.

So there you go. A few thoughts on Brad’s summary. Roll on the National Curriculum I say! (Fingers crossed).

Cheers- Simon.

25 08 2009
John Tannous

The first comment I would like to make is that it has become increasingly difficult for teachers to try and cater for the mixed abilities in their classrooms. Streaming has helped (especially if you are teaching the top class), but what about the others. Where do you pitch your lesson? Do you push your top students or do you cater for the ones struggling. Are you going to lose the middle ones? I don’t have the answer, but to set a lesson for three different ability levels is almost impossible to do on a daily basis when you have 31 students in your class and you can teach up to 7 different classes. A simple solution might to stream all the way through. What does this do to students confidence and are the students in the lower classes then labelled. Are teachers going to be exited about teaching these bottom classes?

The second point is in relation to the crowded curriculum. At a recent conference in Perth, Patrik Scheinin (Faculty of Behavioural Sciences Department of Education & Centre for Educational Assessment) from the University of Helsinki quoted that the secret to his countries success was that they don’t try to each everything to their school children. They concentrate on the basics, build their students confidence and then develop a deeper knowledge and understanding in these basic skills. This has proven to be successful as Finland is currently ranked number one in the world academically. This is a very different approach to our curriculum. We seem to be content driven and never seem to have enough time to get through the work.

Just some of my thoughts.

27 08 2009
Kevin Wright

The joys of computers have just hit home as I managed to delete a page of type. My first point is the need to overcome the guilt of not completing all the content and focussing, rather, on quality. I still have trouble with that. The next is to make sure more comes from the minds and pens of the students, rather than my own.

An interesting issue came up in my Yr 10 class today when Sarah from Queensland said they never did listening tasks and I realised how very important these are. Listening is becoming a lost art in a so-called multi-tasking environment.

Obviously we have to use the method that best suits but I have found the top classes learn so much more when they are presenting the work.

I think frameworks are good and thereafter we can leave room for creativity. And I am a great believer in a broad general knowledge.

27 08 2009
Kylie McAllister

I agree with everyone, especially what John has said about crowded curriculum. From a classroom teachers point of view, I feel like we could go into so much more depth about issues important to the students – but we just can’t because we have to get through so much. We have 3 theory lessons a fortnight, so we just don’t have the time to go into detail before we move onto the next sub topic. This year our year 9 program has been more in depth, so the students have been able to get to know stuff in more detail and ask lots of questions. Yes I am very far behind some of the other classes, but it has been so worth it and I know the students would say so too. I would like to see the curriculum reduced so we can teach more in depth and know that it is worthwhile. And if anyone else wasn’t sure about didactic, don’t worry, I had to ask Brad what it meant.

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