Learning about Learning
Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School is a fascinating book that gave me new insights into just about every facet of my life—my work, my communications specialty, my family, and myself as a learner. Willingham is a cognitive scientist who translates the implications of cutting edge knowledge about the brain for teaching and learning. The book is intended for educators, but the lessons inside go well beyond the boundaries of a classroom.
For our work at ERS—The (intellectually) rich get richer
One lesson that stands out on resource planning in large urban school districts is that the more content students have already learned, the more they are able to learn. The achievement gap is certainly not news, but this book explains in detail how the learning brain builds upon existing knowledge—so that what we already know allows us to learn more. This helps explain the rapidly growing gap between achievers and non-achievers with each passing school year. “The amount of information you retain depends on what you already have,” Willingham explains. The numbers are alarming. If one student starts behind her cohort, the disparity multiplies every day and the opportunities to close the gap diminish.
There are many ways this fact should affect resources in school districts, but the one that stands out to me is the necessity to support universal prekindergarten. The earlier less advantaged children are exposed to content, the smaller the learning gap. With tough times, Pre-K is often on the list for cuts. Willingham’s book illustrates why this is such a dangerously shortsighted choice.
For Communicators—Know your audience
My career has focused on how to effectively communicate complicated issues on a broad scale. This book illustrated a fascinating lesson: for learning to be absorbed, it needs to be presented just beyond the level where the audience starts. If it’s too hard, they won’t grasp the material no matter how hard they try. If it’s too easy, what’s the point? “People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers,” says Willingham. Again, he presents what actually happens in your audiences’ brain that allows information to be absorbed. By applying what he knows about learning to his own presentation style, he makes it very easy for a nonscientist to understand and apply.
The implication for communications: know your audience, consider what they already know, and don’t give too much information at once. Let the learning build step by step.
For Parents—Praise hard work
The lesson that most struck me as a parent is that there really is no substitute for hard work. Perhaps this is a cliché, but Willingham shows that while natural abilities vary, hard work is crucial for anyone to achieve learning. He warns parents and teachers not to praise children for being smart, but for working hard. He contrasts children who understand that intelligence is malleable to those who believe it’s fixed or genetically determined. The child who believes her intelligence is malleable knows that hard work will yield results and that mistakes are an opportunity to learn—not an indication of failure. How you praise your child informs their sense of themselves and their motivation to work and take risks.
This isn’t easy to read as a parent. Who hasn’t been proud and effusive when their children seem to master something effortlessly? But it certainly makes you think about the message under the message, and how short-term affirmation can paradoxically dampen the motivation for long-term mastery. The good news (happily also found in this book) is that if I work harder, I can do better next time!
Each page in this book teaches you something about your own learning—how it works, how to learn more, and how to teach others. My biggest takeaway was the importance of reading more, of continuing learning to learn. The more content I stuff into my memory now, the easier it will be to fit more in and to do more with all of it down the road.