Why Don't Students Like School? had been a successful book for Daniel Willingham.

The UVA cognitive psychologist's plainly written primer for teachers on how their students' brains work received good reviews from publications like the Wall Street Journal. For a while, it was No. 7 among all nonfiction books on Amazon.com. Bill Gates even read it.

Illustration by Mark Stephen
But two years after its publication, the notice had quieted. The book slid several thousand slots down on the bestseller list—"Probably behind a few dozen cat books," Willingham says—and he wondered whether his work was actually making a difference.

Then one night last November just before bed, he flopped down in front of his home computer and started scrolling through his Twitter account. A tweet popped up from a follower in England. It said something like, "Good to see Willingham's ideas are having some influence." There was a link to a news article in The Guardian. Willingham clicked.

The story said that the English secretary of education, Michael Gove, was laying out an ambitious new plan for revamping his nation's school system. Gove wanted to institute new, rigorous standardized tests, which he said would push students to build up their factual knowledge base and ultimately boost their ability to think critically and creatively.

And he was citing Daniel Willingham's "quite brilliant" work as the chief inspiration behind his plan.

"My first reaction was, 'Uh-oh,'" Willingham says. "I'd never spoken with him or anyone from his office, and the headline said that he was calling for 'rote' learning, which is not what I say at all. But when you read the speech, he gets the science that I talk about right. I don't agree with some of the ways he intends to apply it. But it is good to see the book being considered in serious ways."

For nearly a decade, Willingham has been leading the charge to educate teachers on how the brain works—in simple, approachable terms—and help them leverage that knowledge in the classroom.

His forays out of the ivory tower are now the central part of his work and are beginning to shatter long-held myths about how the brain learns—he says there is exactly no evidence that learning styles actually exist, for example—while capturing the attention of high-ranking policy makers across the globe like Gove.

"One does not earn the esteem of fellow academic psychologists by doing what Dan does," says Sam Wineburg, a professor of educational psychology and history at Stanford University. "There are few academics who acknowledge the responsibility of the academy to students and the work in public schools. You don't earn tenure by helping out teachers. But Dan has made that his cause."

Filling a gap

Many education experts agree there is a wide gap between what scientists know about cognition and how teachers leverage that knowledge in their instruction. They cite a number of reasons, from education schools that don't emphasize it enough to academics who are poor at translating the science for busy teachers.

"I know I took ed psych classes and when I try to recall what I learned—blank," says Scott McLeod, associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Kentucky, who has debated the benefits of classroom technology with Willingham. "Academics get rewarded for writing arcane journal articles that practitioners can't read and then we wonder why nobody pays attention to us. There are lots of smart people who are doing really smart things, but they never reach the people who need it the most."

Willingham says he first saw the gap after being invited to speak at an educators' conference several years ago led by E.D. Hirsch, a UVA education professor emeritus and author of the seminal book, Cultural Literacy, which challenged American educational standards.

"I frankly didn't think I could offer much," Willingham says. "I just talked about some of the basics of the established research within cognitive science and what it might mean in the classroom. But people in the room were clearly very surprised by what I was saying. A lot of it was news to them."

The first step in understanding how cognitive science can help students learn is to recognize how the brain thinks, Willingham says. First, imagine the world as a sort of river of external information constantly flowing into the brain—what color these letters are, the smell of your coffee percolating or the score of a game on TV.

Working memory, the part of the brain where awareness or consciousness exists, takes in all of that information. It feeds some of it down into long-term memory, which is sort of like a huge warehouse of factual knowledge about the world. Those facts can be both concrete, the colors of a stop sign, for example, or abstract, such as what the square root of nine equals.

Long-term memory, meanwhile, is also feeding other information back into working memory. And when that information meets the external information, knowledge is rearranged in new ways—thinking occurs. Knowing how to combine information and rearrange ideas is the key to successful thinking, Willingham says.

A simple diagram of how the mind works Graphic by LaVidaCo

But there's a wrinkle, and it is one of the myths in learning that Willingham is trying to break: The brain is actually lousy at thinking. It's slow and often wrong. Consider how long it would take you to balance your checkbook if you had to do it in your head, and what the chances would be that you'd be wrong when you are done. A $5 calculator, Willingham likes to say, can do it faster and is always right. The brain would prefer to rely on memory to operate—recalling facts it already knows.

So why do we think? The brain is a sort of pleasure hound. Willingham says it enjoys that little rush it gets when it solves a problem that seems challenging but solvable. For some people that might come by putting in the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle; for others, it might be deciphering the meaning in an Emily Dickinson poem.

The question of why don't students like school, then, might be best answered by posing a slightly different question: When do students like school? Willingham says it's effectively when teachers hit that sweet spot between too hard and too easy.

"There are other reasons why a student likes school, of course," Willingham says. "There are social reasons, sports, those sorts of things. But from a learning perspective, that's when students are going to be most engaged."

Knowing 'just facts'

Long-term memory is a central part of Willingham's model. The bigger the storehouse of information a brain has, he says, the better the brain will comprehend information coming in, the more dots it will connect and the stronger memory it will have.

But more importantly, a larger long-term memory capacity frees up space that the information would otherwise take up in working memory, thus allowing more thinking to occur.

So Willingham argues that teachers should not shy away from building factual knowledge in their students, even if the conventional wisdom of many is that doing so sacrifices the development of creative and critical thinking skills.

Daniel Willingham Dan Addison
"It's mostly a myth that you can develop critical thinking skills without a base of factual knowledge," Willingham says. "Reasoning, logic—all of those are interwoven with, and dependent upon, knowing facts. The more factual knowledge you have, the more ability the brain will have to do that higher-level thinking."

That's why Willingham thinks standardized tests make sense.

"There are no good tests for critical or creative thinking," Willingham says. "But we can test factual knowledge pretty well. Success in those should be seen as an indicator of a higher potential for critical thinking."

Willingham stresses, however, that he does not advocate attaching "high stakes" to standardized tests, such as basing teacher pay or rating schools based on student scores.

"The most notable thing standardized tests have done is prompted teachers and administrators to change their curriculum and instruction in ways that will boost test scores," Willingham says. "Prepping for tests that way yields fragmented and short-lived knowledge. Testing factual knowledge is like taking someone's temperature. It's an important indication of what's going on, but it's not the only one."

That message, however, often gets lost by both Willingham's supporters and critics. When Gove, the English education secretary, announced his Willingham-inspired plans to implement more rigorous tests across the United Kingdom, he attached the very same stakes to it that Willingham rejects.

"That's one of the challenges Dan faces in doing this work," says McLeod, the Kentucky professor. "It might get widely read and cited, but people will use it for whatever justification they want. It's a fine line to tread. He tends to be associated by most educators with a more politically conservative crowd within education, for better or for worse, because conservatives tend to back standardized testing."

Willingham says he works hard to focus his work on the science, but that it's an uphill battle to keep the information from becoming politicized.

"I try to leave out anything in my writing that is politically charged," Willingham says. "I get called conservative because of what I say about standardized tests, but I've been called a 'lefty' because I've written about the importance of preschool. People abuse what I write and use it for their personal agendas, or they simply mischaracterize what I say. But all I really know is the science, and that's what I try to stick to."

One of the most common myths that Willingham tries to battle with science is the theory of learning styles. While its exact genesis is unclear, many teachers, students and parents have come to believe that some students might learn best when information is presented in a certain way, visually, for instance, or kinesthetically.

But Willingham says 50 years of research shows learning styles are a fiction.

Take two students, he says, one a perceived visual learner and the other a so-called audio learner. Give them each some vocabulary words and definitions to listen to several times. Then have them look at a slide show of pictures depicting other words.

If the learning style theory is correct, the audio student would get more of the words right the first way, and the visual one would get more with the pictures. Researchers have found time and again, however, they don't.

Willingham says it may be true that some people have stronger visual or auditory memories than others, and so they might better retain visual or auditory information that comes at them. He says it's also true that some information, such what Europe looks like, is better shown than described with words.

"But most of the time, we remember what things mean, not what they look like or sound like," he says. "When we're told a story, we remember what the person said happened, not what their voice sounded like when they told it to us, because it doesn't mean much."

Teachers and administrators who've worked with Willingham say that it's his willingness to break down myths in a matter-of-fact way free of any apparent ideology that makes him credible to those on the front lines of education.

"To see a college professor who was so concerned with the practical application of the research, it's been remarkable," says Vince Watchorn, head of school at Providence Country Day School, a private prep school in Rhode Island that has hired Willingham as a consultant. "He's not some guy in an ivory tower, even if that's where he works. Teachers take to him because he can deliver this information and he's not trying to push an agenda. It's just 'here's what we know about this.'"

Willingham says he hopes his work will someday lead to cognitive science becoming a cornerstone in educational policy and instruction, replacing many of the fads and myths that have existed during the last several decades.

"I would love to change the zeitgeist so people in policy will want to know first what the science says, and what its limits are, and what knowing those both can do to help kids," he says. "I don't want it ever to be, 'We need to know what Willingham thinks.' I'd like it to be routine for people within education to be always asking, 'What does the data show?'"