Understanding Why Students Don't Like School

Teachers ask. Parents ask.

"Why don't students like school?"

Many students ask that question, too, as they struggle to stay attentive in class, while waiting for the bell to ring so they can pay attention to the things that really interest them.

"If you ask 100 high school students if they like to learn new things, almost all of them will tell you they like to learn," said Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive psychologist. "But if you ask those same students if they like school, many of them will tell you they don't."

He addresses these issues in a new book, "Why Don't Students like School?," in which he explains how the mind works - and what it means for the classroom.

"The mind is actually designed to avoid thinking," Willingham said. "Thinking is a slow process; it's effortful and even uncertain. People naturally want to avoid that process, and instead rely on memory, the things we already know how to do and are successful at."

Willingham uses cooking as an example.

"If you want to make spaghetti sauce, you could go onto the Internet and search out new recipes. You could go through all your cookbooks. And if you are really into cooking, you might do exactly that. But most people will just make the sauce the way they always make it, because they already know how. And so it's a lot easier that way."

Which is one of the reasons students don't like school. They are forced to think, to accept new challenges, to learn new things, and therefore do the thing their mind most wants to avoid - thinking.

But this is true only up to a point. People also are curious.

"People actually enjoy thinking - when it is at a level that is not too simple, and not excessively difficult," Willingham said. "People like to be challenged. That's why we play games, it's why we read books, why we do many of the things we do. So there's a sweet spot, a level where learning is neither too simplistic to be interesting, nor too difficult to be enjoyable. This is the spot that teachers are always trying to find for their students in the classroom."

This is where creative teaching comes in, using a combination of storytelling that evokes emotion and thought, and exercises that put lessons into context and that build upon previous learning. It's also sustained hard work, Willingham said, that creates thinking skills dependent upon factual knowledge.

"We want to create learning experiences that last," he said.

Willingham spent about 15 years of his career as a research cognitive scientist, conducting studies under laboratory conditions. Then he started talking to teachers' groups and discovered that what he and other researchers had discovered in the lab was of great interest to teachers in the field.

In 2002 he began writing a column, "Ask the Cognitive Scientist," for American Educator, the quarterly journal of the American Federation of Teachers. Teachers have been asking ever since.

Willingham also writes a blog for teachers, and now has authored his book, specifically for teachers and parents of home-schooled children.

One question teachers keep asking is how to work with students' different "learning styles." They don't really exist, Willingham said.

"There are different abilities, but really, we all learn the same way," he said. "It's not left brain versus right brain, or visual or auditory or kinesthetic. We learn using a combination of skills, and we are all more similar in our learning styles than different."

And students naturally learn better in the areas or disciplines where their abilities lie. The key for teachers, and for students, is to find that "sweet spot," where learning is the wonderful challenge that inspires us to do more than simply make sauce the same way we've always made it.


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