Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 05/10/2010

Why student attitudes toward school change -- Willingham

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a pyschology professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
Occasionally someone will ask me: “What is the most surprising thing you see when you visit classrooms?”

What has surprised me most has also disheartened me most; it’s the difference in attitude between first graders and sixth graders.

First graders are all basically happy to be in school. Sure, they get frustrated or bored by what they’re doing, but when they do, their response is generally “I don’t like this. What else can I do?” They are still game, still ready to go.

Ten minutes of observing a sixth grade classroom makes it clear that some students believe they do not belong there. They don’t see school as a place of excitement and opportunity. They see school as a place where they fail and are made to feel ashamed.

These are the students who will drop out. These are the students who may graduate, but will do so functionally illiterate.

Many things happen between first and sixth grade that might contribute to students concluding that school is not for them.

One in particular strikes me. Students get one, perhaps two, chances to feel academically successful in lower elementary school.

I say that because studies show that show most academic time is devoted to Language Arts: in first grade, about 67% and in third grade, 55 %.

So what happens to the student who is having a hard time learning to read? He spends most of the day working on something that is unpleasant, unrewarding, and at which he feels a failure.

Suppose that student would really like science, or history. He won’t know that, because the average third grader spends only about 6% of their academic time on each of those subjects.

It’s no wonder that, by late elementary school, such a student would conclude that he doesn’t belong.

I’ve previously argued that we need a broad curriculum in early elementary school in order to support reading comprehension in later grades. We also need a broad curriculum in elementary school to maximize the chances that students will find school engaging and rewarding.


Follow my blog all day, every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our new Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | May 10, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, about first graders, about sixth grade, guest bloggers, learning  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Say what, Secretary Duncan?
Next: Yale and Harvard at the Supreme Court


My sister is struggling to get enough money to buy pulleys and magnets for her kindergarten class. She thinks science is a way to get to reluctant students.

Unfortunately, as a teacher in AZ, there is no money at all for such luxuries as magnets for kindergartners.

Posted by: EduCrazy | May 10, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Willingham is absolutely correct, but possibly for the wrong (or incomplete) reasons. In addition to the youngster who is expected to spend most of his time struggling with something that is difficult for him, he is being told there is something wrong with his for not learning it well. He also feels that the teacher exists not to help him but to point out who poorly he is doing.

My teachers always told us that a test was not to prove we didn't know much but to point out where we needed more work--an explanation that sounded very false, given that we never went back to learn what the test indicated we didn't know.

My brother, a dropout, eventually got his GED with a 98% score. When my mother told him she always knew he was smart, he replied, "You're the only one. Every time the teachers asked me to read something and I stumbled over a word, I could see in their faces that they thought I was stupid."

(Also, kids are used to doing things they don't like--but so many teachers seem to feel they should love each subject. I was willing to learn algebra; I just didn't see why I should have to like it also.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 10, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

First, the balanced literacy approach fails many kids, especially boys and kids at the bottom of the SES spectrum. Next, too many schools fail to give extra help/more specific instruction to struggling readers immediately, before they fall significantly behind. Third, mainstreaming and heterogeneous classes exacerbate both of the above. Fourth, choice of reading material and writing assigments (chick fiction and writing stories or journals) often repel boys. Increase content knowledge and interest by including history, science, biography, adventures etc.

Posted by: momof4md | May 10, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully MCPS will read this report. When my son was in 3rd grade, our neighborhood school principal told us he was mandated to provide only 30 minutes of science or social studies max per week. He told the parents that time had to be devoted to reading...if the kids couldn't read, they couldn't do science. And why couldn't the kids' excitement about science be harnessed to get them excited about reading and school? Thank goodness for the highly gifted centers.

Posted by: valerie11 | May 10, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse

The most essential element to learning is simply to play, thus, exploring. If you are not laughing, you're not learning (at least you're not going to remember what you learned). Standardized testing emphasizes the opposite, thus, failure and the attitude that comes with it. The fault lay with the politics of education getting in the way of turning on life-long learners. Instead they're tuning out. A travesty.

Posted by: Care1 | May 10, 2010 7:40 PM | Report abuse

As one who tutors students with reading problems, I'm always mystified by the limited choices of reading materials offered.

If you want 6 year old boys to read, volcanoes, sharks, snakes, explosions, spiders, pirates, trucks and trains are the way to go. And if you think they can't spell at this age, try out a dinosaur enthusiast. They can spell 5 syllable words if they love the word in question.

Posted by: amgnificent | May 11, 2010 7:09 AM | Report abuse

I once heard a talk by a teacher who, inheriting the slow learners in an emergency, increased their reading level dramatically. Asked how he accomplished it, he replied, "I gave them something they wanted to read." In his case, he had read some Sherlock Holmes stories to them, and when they begged for more, he got enough paperbacks donated for the entire class and warned them if they were not using their approved textbook they would have to work very hard to keep him from getting in trouble. He said they struggled, but they helped each other and learned.

(Another person, a mother, said her reluctant son learned to read because he loved to cook and discovered reading a recipe meant he could cook when she didn't have time to help him.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 11, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Oh, come on. These schools have appropriate reading material. And if you think these are the kind of kids who just need a reason to read, then you're deluding yourselves.

These are kids with serious and systemic problems learning reading. And giving them fun science lessons will not fix the problem. The sad truth is that if you can't learn to read, then you can't participate in any other part of school--how, pray tell, is a kid who can't read going to do well in high school bio?

There will be kids who hate school. Get over the shock and stop thinking that anyone other than the top 10-20% of kids actually enjoy school on a regular basis.

Could we do a better job of teaching the kids who can't easily read by third grade? Sure. Is making school a "fun" place with more science and history work they can't read the answer? Try again.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 11, 2010 8:32 PM | Report abuse

"Suppose that student would really like science, or history. He won’t know that, because the average third grader spends only about 6% of their academic time on each of those subjects."

The same is true of math, unfortunately. Under today's Reform Math, there's less and less challenging math and more and more lengthy "story problems" and "explain your answer" requirements. The result is that many of the kinds of children I write about in my book are extremely frustrated in what once would have been one of their favorite subjects--especially if they are weak in language arts and penmanship (in which case they also earn low grades in math).

The irony is that many people think today's schools are spending too much time on math. While it's true that they are spending more on more hours on something they call "math", in fact they are spending less and less time on *actual* math--and on challenging math in particular.

Katharine Beals
Author, "Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World"

Posted by: KatharineBeals | May 12, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

"stop thinking that anyone other than the top 10-20% of kids actually enjoy school on a regular basis."

Actually, I have seen studies, although I can't cite any of them, indicating that many dropouts are in the top % of kids. The very poor students hate school because it seems aimed at proving how stupid they are, and the very bright hate school because it seems aimed at making them stupid. I have friends who were early readers and/or advanced in at least one subject, and all of us seem to have had more than one experience of being told even though we were right we should put the wrong answer down because that was the material in the book, or told to stop reading a particular book because it was aimed at a more advanced level. (In my own case, my mother taught me, in response to my request, to write my name in cursive when I was a first-grader. My teacher told me that since cursive wasn't taught until the second grade, I should stop using it until I had been officially taught to write in cursive--even though she admitted I was writing very legibly!)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 12, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

"Actually, I have seen studies, although I can't cite any of them, indicating that many dropouts are in the top % of kids."

Yeah, you'd have to cite them, because that's flatly unbelievable. Some tiny fraction, a decimal of one percent, of kids might be those misunderstood geniuses that you romanticize in your post. They aren't the problem. So let's focus on the reality that 99% or higher of the kids dropping out have abysmally low skills, shall we?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | May 16, 2010 9:22 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company