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.
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