Review of ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’

Someone once told me that being a teacher is a lonely job. It didn’t make sense at first. I mean teachers need to teach people right? But for myself, being a high school teacher I can see it now. 

My students aren’t my peers. And other teachers, well as lovely and as well meaning as they are they may not understand what’s happening in my classroom, and what I need. Or I may not want to talk to them because of ‘school politics’. 

So when I come up against a problem in the classroom, it can be difficult to know who to turn to. I have often caught myself wondering… ‘Who else might know exactly why …?’ 

Enter ‘Why don’t students like school? – A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.’

Getting access to a cognitive (brain) scientist who has the research to back up claims is refreshing. Because even though we may not realise, there are plenty of myths going around education.

  • Learning styles
  • Students emulating experts or learning basics
  • Drills and their importance in learning
  • etc.

And it’s nice to get an informed, reasoned opinion to help even the not so scientific people like me.

Now this book isn’t new. In fact it is about 10 years old at the time this review is being written. But the truth is there are nine questions that are thoroughly answered in this book and they are all still relevant today. 

I remember the first time I read this book I read a couple of pages and had to put it down to let my mind race on the information. I was new yes, but I did feel like someone had handed me the answer sheet to the ‘teaching test’. 

I really like the fact that this book sets out to answer typical questions that are asked by educators, parents and students.

  • Why don’t students like school?
  • How can I teach students the skills they need when standardized tests require only facts?
  • Why do students remember everything that is on Television, and forget everything I say?
  • Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?
  • Is drilling worth it?
  • What’s the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?
  • How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?
  • How can I help slow learners?
  • What about my mind?

I also like the fact that when science doesn’t have an answer, you get told. 

This book is relevant to teachers. And the author has done their best to make it a good resource for teachers. 

Everything is backed up with resources that you can read, and are highlighted at the end of each chapter.

Books written by experts like this not only give an insight but help restore some of that motivation that wears away with time. Especially when they are this relevant to what’s happening in the classroom.

There isn’t enough space in this review to go through the entire book, but I would like to go through what I found important. And what stuck with me from when I first read it.

1. The brain works by learning a little at a time

Some people are luckier than others. They can take in a little more information at one time. But even for those lucky ones, it’s more about how often you look at something, rather than how ‘hard’ you look at it (like what a student might do the night before a big test)

Doing a little bit every day gives the brain more chances to retain the information. 

As I said before I read this when I was a new teacher (at University actually) so since seeing this in action, I’ve noticed that not only that it builds study habits and most importantly, changes someone’s identity. 

Doing something simple everyday changes their identity. Which then affects their attitude towards study, or exercise or their finances.

Practically for me this means chunking things right down, finding the most important bit of information and continually going over it.

2. Beginners need to be good beginners, not pretend to be experts

Learning things takes time. Some pick it up easier than others but we all need to go through the process of being beginners. There isn’t a shortcut. 

As a woodwork teacher I think other teachers think my job is easier than theirs. ‘Kids love woodwork’ I hear all the time. 

And it’s true, kids do love getting to use the tools. Some see it as a right of passage. 

But they like the subject not simply because they get to play with tools. Students get pitted against whatever they are making. And it’s all them. I don’t do it for them. Whatever they do is visible on the final product. (I like to tell the kids it’s ‘character’)

They are beginning, and they are happy to begin where they are. Other subjects and classes don’t tend to be as raw as this. And typically don’t celebrate ‘character’ answers.

So there you have it. My review of ‘Why students don’t like school?’ by Daniel T Willingham

If you are wondering about should you read this book then I would say yes, particularly if:

  • You feel like your classes are a little mundane
  • You are starting to feel like your not as motivated in your teaching
  • You want a scientific look at education

Before I finish I must put in here that it is an easy to read book, written in a conversational tone. Not a science journal.

There are also plenty of diagrams to help explain different theories, conceptual models and important images (about 8 per chapter)

I enjoyed the read and think you’ll get something out of it. You can find a copy here.