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Posted at 11:33 AM ET, 10/25/2010

Willingham: Is a paradigm shift really needed?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
Several people have sent me this video, either because they thought it brilliant and wanted to be sure that I saw it, or because they thought it foolish and wanted me to criticize it.

It’s a cleverly animated summary of a talk delivered by Sir Ken Robinson, a British author, former professor of education, and authority on innovation. Robinson suggests that what’s needed in education is a “paradigm shift.”

Maybe so, but Robinson makes a poor case. T

The set up for Robinson’s solution will be familiar to anyone who follows education:

(1) We have lots of problems (enormous prison population, flat academic achievement, alienated kids) and; (2) Things are changing (e.g., growing population, rapidly evolving technology the effects of which we do not understand, unprecedented demands on our natural resources).

These circumstances are so extreme, Robinson suggests, we do not simply need to fix or improve our schools, but to completely rethink how they operate.

He further suggests that all of us hold unrecognized assumptions about what schooling is for and how it is organized, and that these assumptions cause many of our problems.

Robinson says education was modeled on the interests of Industrialism and in its image. There is a production line mentality in education. Schools are organized as factories: ringing bells, strict specialization, the kids sorted by age, or “date of manufacture,” as Robinson half-jokes.

This model rests, he argues, on a view of the mind that grew out of the Enlightenment. Logic and rationality reign supreme. Pursuits that depend on logic are “intellectual” and therefore superior to non-intellectual pursuits.

Robinson argues that our current paradigm of schooling, rooted in this view of the mind, is killing kids’ creativity, and diminishing the capacity of many people whose minds don’t match the Enlightenment view. They think they are stupid when they are, in fact, “brilliant.”

Robinson concludes his talk by arguing for three changes. First, give up on the “mythical” separation between academic and non-academic thinking and tasks; second, recognize that most great learning happens in groups; third, change the habits of our institutions to implement these changes.

I find myself agreeing with some of what Robinson says, for example, the idea that educational institutions should be more tuned to an individual student’s interests and abilities. It’s hard to see how you could disagree with that goal. The question is how that goal is to be met, and whether the way forward is clear. And that’s where I find myself losing confidence in Robinson.

I lose confidence because the framework in which he puts education and education reform is not in the least revolutionary.

Robinson pegs the current system as a product of the Enlightenment, but curiously the word “Romanticism” never comes up. Romanticism was an intellectual movement of the second half of the 18th century that arose in response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It elevated emotion and feeling, and also emphasized the sublimity of Nature and all things natural.

Indeed, Romanticism gained strength in reaction to the Industrial revolution, the very movement that Robinson criticizes as an inspiration of our erroneous education paradigm.

Romantic views of education, typified by Pestalozzi and Rousseau, emphasize personal experience as crucial, and decry the sublimation of the individual to conformity. More generally, progressive educators from the early 20th century to the present have emphasized instruction that follows the child’s interests, includes more real-world tasks, and more group work.

So Robinson is not suggesting a revolutionary, entirely new approach. In fact he’s tapping a very rich, very old vein of thought.

It’s not important to me that he fails to acknowledge his intellectual forbears. It’s important to me that he fails to acknowledge that many many people have tried to create schools inspired by these ideals before. A few were spectacular, inspiring successes. Most crashed and burned. And, as is so common, what made the successes work well seemed difficult to pin down, and dashed attempts to replicate the success elsewhere.

I want Robinson to tell me what’s going to make things different this time around.

My other problem with this video is that some of the details are inaccurate.

Robinson suggests that although the great majority of psychologists and pediatricians believe that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a bonafide disorder, “it’s still a matter of debate.”

It’s hard to find debators willing to take the other side. You’ll be hard put to find them at the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control, or any of the other national and international organizations that recognize ADHD as a medical condition.

He also strongly implies that one of the reasons for the high incidence of ADHD today is that kids are overstimulated by technology. It’s not a factor.

As evidence that education kills creativity, Robinson cites a study showing that, as kids age, they score lower on the “alternate uses” task, in which the subject is asked to think of alternate uses for a common object, for example, a paper clip. The goal is to produce the maximum number possible, but responses are scored for plausibility. Robinson suggests that scores drop as kids age because schools drum into kids’ minds the idea that there is always one right answer.

That may be a factor, but there’s an alternative explanation. Thinking of alternative uses is easier if you are unfamiliar with the typical use for the object. If you know what a paper clip is, every time you say to yourself, “Hmm, what might one do with this?” the idea “fasten papers!” intrudes.

Thinking only of the typical use for objects is called “functional fixedness” and other data show that kids are less susceptible to it, and become more susceptible to it when you show them the typical function. So it’s probably not that education drums into kids that there is one right answer. Education teaches kids (among other things) what objects are for, and yes, under some circumstances, that gets in the way of solving problems. But usually knowledge is good.

Getting details wrong makes me less confident that Robinson is getting the big things right, and failing to acknowledge previous attempts to change the paradigm makes me uncertain of his vision.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 25, 2010; 11:33 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Learning, Learning Disabilities  | Tags:  cognitive science, daniel willingham, reformation, renaissance, rousseau, school reform, sir ken robinson  
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Next: A funny, scary 'education' conversation


I agree with both sides of this argument. I believe the educational system in America does need to be revamped for today, however the author is correct that the video does not address romanticism nor does it offer truly revolutionary changes to the current system.

Posted by: welangIII | October 25, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

I'm afraid the term paradigm shift is just license for people to come in and change everything because they have the power to do so.

Certainly some things need to be changed, and can be changed and improved, over time. But can paradigm shifts be successfully orchestrated and engineered? Don't they evolve on their own and then are noticed after the fact?

Posted by: efavorite | October 25, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Valerie, you DO realize that Daniel Willingham just essentially advocated Montessori schools, right? It would be nice if he could at least acknowledge that this has been done for about a century now and has been shown to be quite effective.

Instead, he has to think of this has a "new" idea that Robinson just came up with. Please.

Posted by: rlalumiere | October 25, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Regarding ADHD,

A recent article:

Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Sep 9

Lead and PCBs as Risk Factors for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Eubig PA, Aguiar A, Schantz SL.
University of Illinois.

I would like to see an epidemiological study showing breastfeeding (and duration) and bottle feeding (with plastic bottles vs. glass) and the rate of ADHD in children over several decades. Since smoking is also linked to ADHD, plug that info in as well, go by zip code and other typical factors such as materal education, income, and more. Soy-based forumula or milk-based? DHA added or not? Selenium? It would also be interesting to see the water fluoridation factor and if formula was mixed with water or purchased premixed (fluoride added as well?) Of course, the worst, mixing formula with tap water having lead.

So many questions. It would be prudent to take preventative measures to reduce the incidence of ADHD - plus a sure way to raise academic achievement.

Posted by: shadwell1 | October 25, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

@rlalumiere: I think Willingham is saying that Robinson fails to acknowledge Montessori and other progressive educational approaches. His (Willingham's) point is that some of these progressive approaches have been successes (like some Montessori schools) but that many have not, and that "scaling" up the successes is not always obvious. My limited impression of Montessori is that it works well in certain situations when the children have background knowledge and motivation coming in, but that it doesn't necessarily work as well in populations where that might not be the case.
None of which Robinson grapples with, since he seems content to being a "visionary" big picture guy. I think education has plenty of those, and they aren't worth very much. We need more thoughtful administrators, teachers and curriculum designers who know the content, different pedagogical approaches, and their student population What works in Scarsdale isn't necessarily what is needed in Harlem, and vice versa. Blanket feel-good statements about how every student is a brilliant flower of untapped creativity doesn't really do much for a 3rd grade teacher with 30 kids and increased calls for accountability.

Posted by: formerDCPSstudent | October 25, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein should see this. But since it doesn't agree with their opinions they won't pay attention to it.

Posted by: jlp19 | October 25, 2010 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Robinson is trying to simplify a very complex topic and I do agree with much of what he states. However, there is always so much more to the issue than can be scribbles on a whiteboard. The idea of a factory churning out a product (students) with a date is right on the money though. It is a strange idea that our current system of schooling assumes all students of the same graduating class have successfully completed every requirement at the same time. That is impossible. No two students in a school's graduating class learn in the same way or at the same rate. Not in a school, a grade, a classroom, or even in a single family. Students must be allowed to learn the basics -- maybe even the first six levels of school -- at their own pace. Advancing students who have not mastered material is setting them up for failure along the line.
If a student is allowed to experience mastery (with no gaps in knowledge because time was allowed) then success in taking on the more rigorous demands is almost guaranteed. Confidence, happiness, success, and the willingness to take on greater challenges all can increase if really teach and do away with age-based promotions.

Posted by: LaFayette2 | October 25, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

" educators from the early 20th century to the present have emphasized instruction that follows the child’s interests, includes more real-world tasks, and more group work...It’s important to me that he fails to acknowledge that many many people have tried to create schools inspired by these ideals before. A few were spectacular, inspiring successes. Most crashed and burned."

BINGO! From Dewey and Kilpatrick to Deborah Meier and Linda Darling-Hammond; in theory their philosophy sounds sensible but they have an anemic track record in reality. Linda DH's Stanford charter school in East Palo Alto, California being closed last year for chronically under performing (academically) is a case in point.

So what's the paradigm shift needed, not to reform our schools but to revolutionize them? All kids are different. They all present themselves at the school house gate with different strengths and weaknesses as well as different levels of readiness and motivation. To think they can all be given the same lesson(s) via whole class instruction every day based primarily on their age/grade is pure folly. It bores some and overwhelms many but unfortunately it remains the practice de jure in the majority of our schools today.

To think we're in the age of education reform without addressing pedagogy, our system of delivery, should be neither arcane nor an enigma. EVERYONE KNOWS whole class instruction exists in our schools today for the convenience of the teacher and to the detriment of our clientele, our students.

Until US schools are willing to radically reform their method of delivery where the pace of each child's learning in each subject is appropriately addressed, our students will never be able to realize their full potential, and our schools will continue to fail.

Posted by: phoss1 | October 25, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Interesting video(though I must admit my attention drifted at various points...what does that mean?)... and Mr. Willingham provides good detailed analysis of it and it was refreshing to not be blamed for all this since I am teacher in one of those buildings that was drawn.

So we don't want to train little factory minions anymore but who should we trust to fix problems that do exist and get us/the kids ready for what we can't anticipate? My vote is teachers and parents. One thing I know as a teacher is how to handle the unexpected and I try to pass at least some of that along to my students. As Robinson mentioned, standardized testing is having an impact and I am not sure all the effects are positive. Too often it is about pass rates alone and not enough about the global view of the child. Those tests are fine to use as one tool to judge a student and performance but shouldn't be the sole indicator. Maybe someone who works directly with kids could write another "Nation at Risk" type report with a different mindset(not likely as they are too busy) and come up with some ideas. I guess we're stuck with educators far from the classroom, business leaders, for profit entrepreneurs and politicians making these decisions...YIKES!

Just my thoughts...

Posted by: fishncville | October 25, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

I don't think a paradigm shift is needed but I do think we should focus on successful students and how they learn. Once we've understood what traits these students have in common, we can begin to offer our least advantaged students some services that we know will help them (such as high-quality preschool) instead of the nonsense that's being pushed at this time ("performance pay" for teachers who are already spending thousands of dollars of their own money on books and supplies supplies!).

Basically we need to start with what we know about how children learn.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 25, 2010 10:22 PM | Report abuse

The shift is already happening:

Posted by: willkat | October 26, 2010 6:58 AM | Report abuse

Linda wants a lot of time out for research and study -- about what any good teacher, like her, should already know. Why is that?

Message to anti-changers: the populace, including kids, parents, other citizens, cannot and will not wait for another several years of academic claptrap dithering while the wheel is reinvented. Nor will they wait for a cure for poverty or parent inattention. We can deal with teachers who are not good enough. And we can make those with discernible promise better. There is no reason not to continue to attempt to upgrade the quality of teachers.

Posted by: axolotl | October 26, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse


I enjoyed reading your nuanced thoughts on this topic. If I understand you correctly, you envision a return to the smaller one-room American schoolhouse of the 17th century where individual student needs could be met. I have toyed with idea myself. I don't know if it is economically or systemically practical but it is certainly a better idea than the teacher-accountability reduction of learning idea that many so-called do-it-for-children people ascribe to.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 26, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

"Claptrap" is a good description for the unfounded beliefs and negative research findings that the current reform movement is built on.

There's no indication that merit pay, Value-added, charters TFA, IMPACT, NCLB, etc. work, but still the reformers press on, doing the same old things they've been doing for upwards of 20 years now, in some cases.

Posted by: efavorite | October 26, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

DavidH1 -- what is "teacher-accountability reduction of learning idea," anyway?

efav. -- glad to see you are into the notion of claptrap. Funnily enough, it applies to gajillions of dollars spent over decades to all of the ed. savants at all the best ed. schools, and many of their student-products. Why is it that none of that good stuff worked? Why have so many research-based techniques failed? Isn't it all claptrap if it does not worked, is disowned (Ravitch is a great example of that), or so tainted that no one wants to implement it, or can't?

Waiting for the Educrats to produce something solid and useful will take decades more than Waiting for Superman. Meanwhile, generations of The Children will be cheated of good educations.

Posted by: axolotl | October 26, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse


I DO know how children learn and was very successful with my own sons and with my students. However, what teachers know is not well recognized nor acknowledged. The "reformers' will only listen when some rich person sponsors research, which is sure to show what teachers already know (e.g. vocabulary development at age 5 is extremely important to academic success in school).

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 26, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse


I DO know how children learn and was very successful with my own sons and with my students. However, what teachers know is not well recognized nor acknowledged. The "reformers' will only listen when some rich person sponsors research, which is sure to show what teachers already know (e.g. vocabulary development at age 5 is extremely important to academic success in school).

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 26, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse


I DO know how children learn and was very successful with my own sons and with my students. However, what teachers know is not well recognized nor acknowledged. The "reformers' will only listen when some rich person sponsors research, which is sure to show what teachers already know (e.g. vocabulary development at age 5 is extremely important to academic success in school).

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | October 26, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

I think some people are too quick to dismiss what Sir Robinson said about the way schools operate and their tie to the economics of the day! When he talks about schools being operated like factories, he is right on target. The goal of public education at the turn of the industrial revolution was to prepare students for a life working in the factories of the rich.

In the mid 1800's we were still an agricultural society, which had its own way of life. For example, farm workers would take breaks when ever they felt the need to rest. This posed a problem for industrialist because in order to have max. productivity workers 'time on task' needed to be closely monitored. Hence the school bell, it trained future workers when it was time to start and stop. If you've ever had family that has worked in a factory, they will tell you how everything stops when that whistle blows for lunch and how everyone rushes back when the whistle blows again.

Also these industrialist where also great philanthropist, especially to University's where a lot of formal education took place. Look up Robert Ogden, Rockefeller, and Peabody. They tied their money to what was taught in the curriculum. For example, Purdue University flagship discipline is Engineering, their mascot is the Boilermakers (which is a pic of a steam engine). If you were to look up who their major donors where at the turn of the century, you will find that most of them had huge stakes in the railroad industry. This is true of most University's,especially in the mid-west and south.

Posted by: CedricCS | October 26, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Typo: "forbearers" instead of "forbears"

Nice conversation, sad it won't affect anything

Posted by: the_lizard1000 | October 27, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

Yes, Linda, again, many times over, thanks from the thousands of kids you taught and congrats on your Harvard and Stanford offspring.

Now, what would you suggest, that is politically feasible, and do-able, and affordable over the next twelve months that would have quick, positive impacts on DC schools? Again, 12 months, practical, do-able, gets results, as in better educated kids. Not just a final report or an unused tool.

Posted by: axolotl | October 27, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse


It is a compound noun phrase that embodies test-driven models of teacher accountability, like but not limited to the "value-added" method, for instance, that reduces learning down to a number; this number supposedly determines a teacher's effectiveness in a classroom and suggests how much students have learned throughout a specific teacher’s tenure with those students.

By the way, my new name for you is John Wayne. He courageously symbolizes America's can-do, ask-questions-later, get-results-now attitude while maintaining a flimsy detachment from the systemic problem that has affected everyone else--or perhaps I have my allusions mixed up. Hmmm. Maybe Sarah Palin would be a better name for you.

Posted by: DHume1 | October 27, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

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