Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham

2. How Can I Teach Students the Skills They Need When Standardized Tests Require Only Facts?

  • The bottom line here is that in order to analyze and think critically, you need to have extensive factual knowledge in long-term memory. It spite of this, fact learning has gotten a lot of bad publicity now that facts are easy to find on the Internet. Since long-term memory and your current environment are all working memory has to solve problems, a long-term memory short on knowledge and procedures isn’t much help. This also means that teachers need to make efforts to determine if their students have the necessary background knowledge for any new learning task. Literacy education starts with teaching students to decode words. By the time fourth grade rolls around, the emphasis is more on comprehension, which depends on background knowledge. This is where kids from privileged homes have a big edge. Also, when it comes to knowledge, those who have more gain more. This causes achievement gaps to widen.
  • For teachers and curriculum writers, the question becomes: what knowledge yields the greatest cognitive benefit? Daniel suggests that students read books, newspapers, and magazines, and that books are likely to expose children to more facts and to a broader vocabulary. They also need to be at the appropriate reading level for each child. Teachers need to focus on concepts that come up again and again. There is also some agreement that a limited number of ideas be taught in great depth. Knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another. Drilling unrelated facts is likely to be ineffective and make students miserable.

3. Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?

  • The key point here is that memory is the residue of thought. If you want students to remember something, they need to think about it. Lessons need to be designed to ensure that students are thinking about the meaning of the material. It’s also reasonable to believe that we remember things that bring some emotional reaction. It’s nice to relate material to students’ interests, but you must always try to interact with students in a way that they find engaging. The best teachers connect personally with students, and organize the material in a way that it seems interesting and understandable.
  • Stories are very powerful when it comes to learning. Be sure your stories have the four Cs. Causality means the events are causally related. There needs to be conflict between characters, and complications. Finally, your characters need to be strong and interesting. Don’t bog your story down with too much detail that students can otherwise infer. Lots of medium-difficulty inferences help students think as they listen. Using a story structure may lead you to organize lessons in new and more effective ways.
  • Some material doesn’t lend itself to stories. This is where you consider using one of the memory tricks (mnemonics) that Willingham recommends. (See pp. 77-78.) Be careful about using attention grabbers. Many times they will be more effective in the middle of a lesson than at the beginning.
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