Why Do Kids Dislike School?

So. Your child is one of the millions who think school is a drag.

He or she gets bored. Doesn’t stay focused. Avoids homework. When you ask what happened at school earlier in the day, the response is, “Nothing,” or, (my personal favorite, one that I’ve heard countless times from my own children) “I don’t remember.”

Perhaps you think your child is lazy. Undisciplined. Incurious. Even limited.
And some of you, unfortunately, may be correct.

But for others, the problems may lie beyond your child. According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, it could be the school that is boring the heck out of your child.

A professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, Willingham studies how people think and learn by looking at the biological and cognitive basis of learning. His conclusions about what this all means for your child sitting in class for eight hours a day may cause you to rethink how your child is being educated.

If the folks who decide what goes on in classrooms understood the work that he and other cognitive scientists do, perhaps more kids would stay interested--and learn in class. And perhaps school “reform” would be geared more toward how kids learn than on standardized test scores.

A discussion of Willingham’s views from his new book, “Why Don’t Students Like School?” starts with the somewhat startling notion that the brain is not designed to think efficiently.

It turns out, he said, that thinking is slow and unreliable, at least compared to activities such as seeing and moving. Unless the cognitive conditions are right, the brain will avoid thinking and instead try to rely on memory.

The human brain does, however, like a challenge. Our brains make us curious and interested in exploring new things. But if the problem a brain is asked to solve is too difficult, it tries to give up. If the problem is too easy, it quickly gets bored and tries to find a way to stop working.

Adults can more easily opt out of doing things that are too hard or too easy than can kids in school. So how do children react when forced to do something they do not feel they can handle? They tune out. And sometimes act out, too.
I learned some other things from Willingham, too, or rather, I unlearned some things I thought were true.

One of them involves the “visual-auditory-kinesthesia” theory that holds that everybody can take in information through each sense but learns best through a preferred one.
It turns out, Willingham said, that the processes by which children learn are far more similar than different. So that many of the efforts teachers make to help kids learn through different “learning styles” don’t really help.

He also takes on the notion that teaching “critical thinking”--or “higher order thinking”--to kids trumps the learning of facts. In fact, the former can’t be done without the latter. Background information matters, and is in fact, necessary for deeper thinking.

And he dispels one of the common techniques that I confess has always bothered me: The effort by textbook writers and many teachers to make classroom material “relevant” to students’ interests and lives because, the thinking goes, it helps them stay interested.
It actually doesn’t, Willingham says; content is no guarantee of interest. You can turn on a documentary about a subject you love but find it boring, or you can watch one on a subject you don’t like and find it fascinating.

Willingham’s book goes on to discuss how thinking and memory work, but explains how teachers can use this to keep their students engaged. (I will post a longer Q & A with Willingham for those who want to read more about these issues.)

The reasons that I find his conclusions so interesting go beyond the shattering of a few myths about education.

What it shows is that there is still a great deal for all of us to learn about how to engage and teach children--and make sure they are learning what they need to be successful adults.

The Answer Sheet will, over time, look at everything that goes into educating children. The issues are countless; the routes to success varied. I’d like to start our discussion by asking you to e-mail me (put in link) with questions and ideas about anything and everything you wonder about related to school and how to survive it.

By Valerie Strauss  |  August 31, 2009; 7:40 AM ET
Categories:  Learning , The Brain  | Tags: brain, learning Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Previous: Why Read The Sheet?
Next: The First Chat


Why don't kids like school? It's been portrayed in the conservative media as being heavy-handed, condescending, and Godless. Plus, you have rappers who don't go to school, athletes who don't complete college, and truants causing trouble and selling drugs on the sidewalk in open-air markets.

Parse THAT.

Posted by: bs2004 | August 31, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Rather than go on about what doesn't work, it would be easier to understand, and more interesting, if the post explained what does work. I imagine using an active voice helps people learn.

Also there is no link to post questions. The text currently has a placeholder, "put in link."

Posted by: sayit | August 31, 2009 9:54 AM | Report abuse

Well, my children generally like school. My oldest, by half way through his 3rd grade year, resented the amount of time devoted to test prep for the DC-CAS.

Right now, in the District of Columbia Public Schools, the only measure of success is how the school scores on a single test.

My children enjoy the language lessons at their school and the music program. Sadly though, those aren't on the DC-CAS and ostensibly have no value.

I'm grateful to our principal and our teachers who make these opportunities available to my children.

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | August 31, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

Why don't kids like school? Because the one-size-fits-all education provided by Western schools (yes, even private ones, although to a lesser degree) makes no attempt to account for the learning styles and cognitive abilities of children outside the norm.

Children that are ahead of the class will find school to be mind-numbing tedium that will color their outlook of education for life, and those behind the class will be frustrated and similarly disillusioned.

Couple this with the fact that school is 12-20 years of a the same daily grind (what percentage of the population has stayed in the same job for that long?) and it's easy to see how, with the exception of those within a sigma of the mean, regard school with revulsion. It's no surprise that homeschooled children are usually fantastically more advanced than their peers.

Besides, there are many things that are much more fun to do.

Posted by: thermowax | August 31, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

My son has loved school and learning but has found the teachers do not try to meet his desire for more. For example he has tried to get his school to offer a debate club but the teachers wont put in the necessary "extra time" to make this happen. He also tried to get something going about the primaries last year to study the election process but was met with little interest as this stuff was "not on the test". He was in a public school in Massachusetts but will be entering 7th grade now at a private school. Our hope is they will meet his desire for more education!

Posted by: trotterew | August 31, 2009 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I used to hate school: I had a poor memory so I learned almost nothing and on the other hand I was very rational and responsible to begin with. Still, I do survive well in tasks demanding schooled ways of thinking & picture of the world. My way of thinking is extremely objective and very much common sense like, like using the senses - see http://www.paradisewillwin.info/Holistic_Objectivity_booklet.pdf for a guide to it. I wonder if it could be used to teach students to be more equal in thinking skills regardless of background? It ought to take one school lesson or less to learn, and as far as I understand objective thinking it could rise the uneducated practical person's thinking ability to about the level of an average university professor. It is hard to believe, I know, but if you know university professors, you know that they aren't superhuman, and if you know practical people, you know that they have practical common sense and keen senses, just like is needed in thinking. I believe my way of thinking being quite close to what is natural for humans. It suits well math, engineering, science, even philosophy, everyday thinking and handiworks & sports, leaving room for one's own different kinds of observations but making one more rational. Since this way of thinking has been largely enough for me, I wonder if it could be enough for the school children too: Could one lessen the school burden, could one teach things much quicker, could one shorten the compulsory (& other) school years and even hours of the school day? I mean: IF this works? One should try: take a look and you will find it easy. Ask a person who understands about thinking and you will find it obvious, correct and quite to the point.
I have been writing about this to many places without any answer, I consider it worth a try, REALLY!, this method of teaching should be EVALUATED just like any other nice idea!

Posted by: hanneletervola | August 31, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Well, we could look at the cognitive scientist point of view or we can simply ask kids what they think about school. here are some of their complaints:

1) it's tough to sit still in a seat and not talk for almost an hour at a time all day long, every day (how many adults do that?)

2) kids feel most of what they learn in school they'll never use in life (how many times today did you quote Shakespeare, discuss the periodic table, explore trade routes of Mali in the middle ages or factor a polynomial?)

3) kids often report that teachers don't know their stuff and don't really care about the kids and make them feel stupid when kids don't understand what the teacher is saying.

Here's what kids say they do want:

more real life connections to what they are learning

more hands on activities

more group activities

use games as a way to teach

Perhaps as with any product or service, if you give the customer what he wants, he will like the product and if you force a product on the customer that he doesn't want, he will rebel against it. the same works with education.

we may want to keep in mind that school kids have it tougher than we do. their day starts earlier than ours (after all schools deliberately open early so parents can get kids off to school before they go to work) and their days end much later. When grownups go home at night, they're done working (usually). Kids have homework. May kids, particularly at the high school level, report that they do homework until 10, 11 or 12 at night. Imagine your work day went from 6 am to midnight every day. how enthusiastic would you be about it?

Posted by: adifferentpointofview | September 1, 2009 7:20 AM | Report abuse

After spending entirely too much money to buy a house in a great school district, we have decided to homeschool. We have a boy and he's one of those boys who is not very good at sitting nicely in a chair for 6.5 hours a day.

Posted by: KS100H | September 1, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

I read Dan's book when it came out. It is one of the most important books about teaching according to the way that people learn that I have ever read. Regardless of one's political agenda, moral leanings, or perception of public education, following the clear advice in this book will prevent many problems from occurring and overcome many that are already present. Why is it that we insist on celebrating the practice activities of athletes and musicians but dismiss acquiring sufficient practice with a cognitive skill as "drill and kill?" Why do we accept the idea that people who are good at things in adult life got there by working long and hard (see Gladwell: "Outliers") but think that children should acquire their competencies effortlessly as if by magic? Even at Hogwarts, the students have to work at it.

Posted by: fbrigham | September 2, 2009 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps one great question for those who are local is why so many Montgomery County, Maryland kids dislike school, and why their parents are so worried about that boredom and dislike. Many of these same children start school intensely curious and ready to learn. They are made to wait until the others catch up.

I read Willingham's book earlier this year and have watched his YouTube powerpoint presentations. He makes the point that reading "strategies" only work for a short time. Then kids need content. Real content.

Parents are very worried: where's the science? where's the history? where's the CONTENT??? Most kids in Montgomery elementary schools don't get any real content, or only small bits of it here and there. This makes school boring, but also largely pointless and a waste of time for those that show up at kindergarten ready to read or already reading.

It is alarming, for instance, that in the three years my child has been in the system not one iota of American history has been discussed. No pilgrims. No American revolution. No Betsy Ross or George Washington. Only once did they talk about Abe Lincoln, because someone came in a Lincoln costume for Halloween. Nothing. Very odd. But then, hey, those things don't show up on the MSAs, do they? So the school system doesn't need to teach them. They essentially don't matter. Same with science. Same with many other topics that kids should be learning.

And while we're at it, how about the importance of recess, for Pete's sake. Kids are not little machines made to crank out test results. They need to move and run and play. A lot. No one can learn when they've been made to sit still all day. This too, has been proven by cognitive scientists. And demonstrated in multiple pieces of research. Recess improves learning. Why our county has almost eliminated it is really beyond most parents. We see how crazy it is making our kids. (The teachers see it too. They realize how pointless it is to try to teach kids who have not been outside all day.)

Many parents are also alarmed by how often practice tests are substituted for real teaching. Talk about boring! At one point last year that was all my child did in school, day after day after day.

I am so glad that someone new is going to be writing about education for the Post. Someone who is a parent, not a grandparent. Someone with current knowledge of how frustrating the PUBLIC schools are today for parents and children. Someone who doesn't act like parents who want a real education for their kids are spoiled and greedy. We are actually doing our jobs: making sure our kids will get what they need to survive without us in the future. Right now it often seems that our kids are being cheated BIG time of a real education.

Welcome Valerie. Thanks for writing about Willingham. Now if we can just get you in print instead of in blog....

Good luck.

Posted by: AGsilverspring | September 2, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

What has got to stop is that policy makers are making decisions about how much curriculum is required in one year.
THE most important thing to consider is that MOST students are required to learn TWO years of curriculum in ONE year. NO ONE wants to look at the amount students are required to learn in one year! No wonder they act out or tune out, teachers have to move SO fast that students do not have a chance to digest, practice and perfect a skill before five new concepts are thrown at them!

Posted by: shelly4 | September 7, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

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