Category Archives: book

“Why don’t children like school?” and “How to teach critical thinking”

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Because the mind is not designed for thinking. (pdf)

Don’t be put off by the ludicrous-sounding subtitle (what he means, as he explains later, is that thinking is hard work and we avoid it wherever possible, usually by relying on memory instead). It’s well worth reading. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology, is not only knowledgeable in his field, he also writes clearly, without condescension or jargon.

He writes for a section in the Washington Post called The Answer Sheet, and has published a book called Why Don’t Students Like School? (The linked pdf file is an excerpt from the book).

The second article, Critical Thinking – Why is it so hard so teach? (PDF) –  is also by Willingham, and this article will be of interest to TPRS teachers. There are certain similarities between his suggestions for effective teaching of critical thinking, and Krashen’s theories of Second Language Acquisition. I’ll write about what TPRS teachers can learn from this article later.

The basic idea of Why Don’t Children Like School is that children don’t like school because they are required to think there, and human beings are not “designed to think”. Well, what Willingham means is two things:

  1. that thinking requires effort and humans prefer to avoid it unless there is no alternative (in particular we prefer to rely on memory),
  2. that, although humans find thinking difficult, they also enjoy it, particularly solving problems, but can only sustain it if there is sufficient satisfaction derived from the effort.

Working on problems that are at the right level of difficulty is rewarding , but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant…. The core idea presented in this article is that solving a problem gives people pleasure, but the problem must be easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough that it takes some mental effort.

Willingham points out three properties of thinking:

First, thinking is slow… Second, thinking is effortful… Third, thinking is uncertain.

Then, Willingham considers the implications for teachers:

What’s the solution? Give the student easier work? You could, of course, but of course you’d have to be careful not to make it so easy that the student would be bored. And anyway, wouldn’t it be better to boost the student’s ability a little bit? Instead of making the work, easier, is it possible to make thinking easier?

… what can teachers do to make school enjoyable for students? From a cognitive perspective, an important factor is whether a student consistently experiences the pleasurable rush of solving a problem. So, what can teachers do to ensure that each student gets that pleasure?

One suggestion he makes is to remember to ask or pose questions. The following paragraph will be interesting for TPRS teachers because a basic TPRS technique is asking questions and using the answers to build a story, or as TPRS teachers say, to ask a story.

One way to view schoolwork is as a series of answers. … Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question. But it’s the question that piques people’s interest. Being told an answer doesn’t do anything for you. When you plan a lesson, you start with the information you want students to know by its end. As a next step, consider what the key question for that lesson might be, and how you can frame that question so that it will be of the right level of difficulty to engage your students, and will respect your students’ cognitive limitations.

I was reminded of a difficulty I encounter while blogging, when I read the following:

There’s a final necessity for thinking: sufficient space in working memory. Thinking becomes increasingly difficult as working memory gets crowded.

How many open tags is the max I can handle?

For details, read the (pdf) article.

The second article, Critical Thinking (pdf), also has some points of interest for TPRS teachers. Willingham asks, “Can critical thinking actually be taught?” His conclusion, based on the results of various studies, is that critical thinking training programs are not as effective a was hoped (or as many people think). He then examines possible reasons for this. To explain, he uses the following concepts: surface structure or knowledge, and deep structure or knowledge, critical thinking as a skill, and metacognitive strategies.


People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation.  Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skills. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, theyprobably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.

This has implications for TPRS teachers, as it sounds similar to Krashen’s theories about learning and acquisition. Krashen posits that learning, which he defines as conscious learning about the language, does not result in acquisition; in other words, learning rules of grammar, spelling or vocabulary does not necessarily transfer to actual competence. Krashen actually suggests that conscious learning is a waste of time, if one assumes that the goal is language acquisition, although he does admit there is a place for learning grammar, but only after students have acquired sufficient language.

Willingham then examines surface knowledge vs. deep knowledge. Willinghamwrites that when we read, we tend to take in the surface structure first, and not look more deeply. He provides two mathematical word-problems: although they are both about the same mathematical process – using the least common multiple – experiments show that people are more likely to think about the surface structures of the problems:

Earlier in the experiment, subjects had read four problems alongs with detailed explanations of how to solve each one… One of the four problems concerned the number of vegetables to buy for a garden [the other was about calculating the number in a high school marching band]… When a student reads a word problem, her mind interprets the problem in light of her prior knowledge… The difficulty is that the knowledge that seems relevant relates to the surface structure… The student is unlikely to … think of it in terms of its deep structure…. Thus, people fail to use the first problem to help them solve the second: In their minds, the first was about vegetables in a garden and the second was about rows of band marchers.

Willingham is showing that, first of all, we bring our background knowledge to bear on problems; that our background knowledge relates usually only to the surface structure of problems, not to their underlying deep structure hence we may often miss seeing the common factors and therefore the principles to apply to similar problems. He then examines how knowledge of how to solve a problem gets transferred to similar problems which have new or different surface structures.

He relates an experiment which gave the same math problems to groups of American and Chinese students. 75% of the American students solved the problem compared to 25 % of the Chinese students. It was surmised that the reason was cultural: the problem was similar to one faced by Hansel and Gretel in the Grimms’ fairy tale, which most of the American students knew whereas most of the Chinese students were unfamiliar with it. A second problem was given, this time based on a Chinese folk tale, and the percentage of solvers from each culture was reversed. Willingham continues:

It takes a good deal of practice with a problem type before students know it well enough to immediately recognize its deep structure, irrespective of the surface structure, as Americans did for the Hansel and Gretel problem… The deep structure of the problem is so well represented in their memory, that they immediately saw the structure when they read the problem.

Sounds like evidence for providing lots of cultural background information (including stories and fairy tales) in our language classes. It is also suggests, does it not, that the way to develop familiarity with the grammar of a language is not to teach the grammar directly, but rather to provide lots of comprehensible input: It takes a good deal of practice with a problem type before students know it well enough to immediately recognize its deep structure, irrespective of surface structure.

Willingham also takes a look at Critical Thinking Programs, and his conclusion based on the evidence, is that they take lots of time to implement – three years, with several hours of instruction … per week – and the benefits are modest (actually, he says that the studies that have been done have methodological problems, and only a small fraction of the have undergone peer review.)

Next, Willingham takes a look at metacognitive strategies. Perhaps we can help students learn by teaching them to look for deep structure?

Consider what would happen if I said to a student working on the band problem, “this one is similar to the garden problem.”… you can teach students maxims about how they ought to think… they are little chunks of knowledge… that students can learn and then use to steer their thoughts in more productive directions. Helping students become better at regulating their thoughts was one of the goals of the critical thinking programs that were popular 20 years ago… these programs were not very effective. Their modest benefit is likely due to teaching students to effectively use metacognitive strategies… Unfortunately, metacognitive strategies can only take you so far. Although they suggest what you ought to do, they don’t provide the knowledge necessary to implement the strategy. For example, when experimenters told subjects working on the band problem that it was similar to the garden problem, more subjects solved the problem… but most subjects, even when told what to do, weren’t able to do it.

Much has been written, and many studies done, about teaching language students metacognitive strategies (see Anita Wenden’s classic Learner Strategies for Learner Autonomy, for example, or any of the zillions of  “learning how to learn” books, etc). Although they seemed interesting and the idea is plausible, I could never overcome a deep suspicion that this was snake oil. Ha! Now I have proof.

Finally, Willingham concludes that scientific thinking cannot be taught in isolation, as a separate skill, like reading music. In fact, Willingham states categorically that critical thinking is not a skill, because it does not transfer in the way that skills do. In addition, the ability to think scientifically depends on scientific knowledge: background knowledge is necessary to engage in scientific thinking.

His conclusions:

First, critical thinking … is not a skill… Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice.

Here are two more articles by Willingham on a similar theme: Inflexible Knowledge: the first step to expertise and Students remember what they think about.

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When public education, isn’t

The situation in the US just boggles my mind. My first recent brush with it came after reading this post, then after reading Savage Inequalities and Doc, and again after reading this post.

Now, after reading this exchange between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch on the blog Bridging Differences (HT to Borderland for the link), I understand the situation a little better, although it still boggles my mind: the gap between the rhetoric (“land of the free, home of the brave, best country in the world, if you don’t like it – leave!”) and the reality is so wide that “gap” doesn’t cover it. It’s more like the reality is the opposite of the rhetoric.

The Dream Deferred… again

I’m nearing the end of Savage Inequalities. As I am not affected in the slightest by what happens in US schools, I was mainly reading it in order to gain some understanding of the mindsets of the people involved. The first third or half of the book is mainly descriptions of schools Kozol visits, starting with the horrific East St Louis schools. The latter half of the book has more facts and figures, including quotes from court cases, and tries to explain why the horrors not only came about but also why they are allowed to persist, and (even worse), why they are being exacerbated.

When I first came across Pissed Off (Teacher)’s blog, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is NYC???!!? After reading Kozol’s book, I can now well believe it (he describes much more horrific schools), tho I can’t accept it. I asked, as does Pissed Off Teacher, how can people tolerate this injustice as acceptable?

Nationwide, black children are three times as likely as white children to be placed in classes for the mentally retarded but only half as likely to be placed in classes for the gifted: a well-known statistic that should long since have aroused a sense of utter shame in our society. Most shameful is the fact that no such outrage can be stirred in New York City…Even the most thorough exposition of the facts within the major organs of the press is neutralized too frequently by context and a predilection for the type of grayish language that denies the possibilities for indignation. Facts are cited. Editorials are written. Five years later, the same facts are cited once again. There is no sense of moral urgency; and nothing changes.

In an earlier post, I quoted Kozol’s description of the complicated system by which schools in the US are financed. But why no outrage?

There seems to be a deeply-rooted belief amongst US citizens that “equality” is a dirty word because it involves taking away from those who have and giving it to those who have not and that this is unacceptable. One newspaper derided this policy as that of “Robin Hood”. I always thought Robin Hood was the good guy, but he is not in the US, apparently. To justify this justification of inequality, people go through amazing mental and semantic gymnastics. Big budgets don’t boost achievement trumpets the Wall Street Journal. It is not money spent by parents, but the value system that impels them to spend money, which is the decisive cause of high achievement in [the affluent districts’] schools. The Journal does not explain how it distinguishes between a parent’s values and the cash expenditures that they allegedly inspire…. In disparaging the value of reducing class size in the cities, the newspaper makes this interesting detour: “If deep cuts can be made – reducing large classes by perhaps half – solid benefits may accrue, and research suggests that even smaller cuts can help the performance of young children in particular. But, as a universal principle, the idea that smaller classes automatically mean more learning doesn’t hold water.” Huh?

There seems to be a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

According to our textbook rhetoric, Americans abhor the notion of a social order in which economic privilege and political power are determined by hereditary class. Officially, we have a more enlightened goal in sight…


The crowding of children into insufficient, often squalid spaces seems an inexplicable anomaly in the United States. Images of spaciousness and majesty, of endless plains and soaring mountains, fill our folklore and our music and the anthems that our children sing… It is a betrayal of the best things that we value when poor children are obliged to sing these songs in storerooms and coat closets.

Kozol refers to the profoundly rooted American ideas about the right and moral worth of individual advancement at whatever cost to others who may be less favored by the accident of birth. Perhaps as a kind of explanation, Kozol points out how, while reading is measured against a standard, most other tests are norm-referenced, meaning that for some to do well, some must not do well. This seems symptomatic of a majority of people’s thinking.

If Americans had to discriminate directly against other people’s children, I believe most citizens would find this morally abhorrent. Denial, in an active sense, of other people’s children is, however, rarely necessary in this nation. Inequality is mediated for us by a taxing system that most people not fully understand and seldom scrutinize.

Another common theme that comes up in the book is the thinking that welfare, charity, or simple human compassion are somehow bad. Kozol asks some NY school children if they can explain the [appalling] physical condition of the school. Hey, it’s like a welfare hospital! You’re getting if for free… You have no power to complain, says one boy.

The quotations Kozol uses from newspapers, governors, politicians, etc, to justify the continuation of the injustices are fully of generalities, talking of “principles” and concepts. They never speak in terms of specifics; it’s all lost in generalities. It is hard to imagine these people speaking with such confidence if they were taken to the schools and places Kozol visited, brought face to face with the children and teachers there, and required to explain to them face to face why they will be denied basic materials and safe environments.

Frequently, says a teacher at another crowded high school in NY, a student may be in the wrong class for a term and never know it. With only one counselor to 700 students system-wide in NYC, there is little help available to those who feel confused. It is not surprising, says the teacher, that many find the experience so cold, impersonal and disheartening that they decide to stay home by the sad warmth of the TV set.… Listening to children who drop out of school, we often hear an awful note of anonymity. I hated the school… I never knew who my counselor was, a former NYC student says. He wasn’t available for me… I saw him once. One ten-minute interview.. That was all.
We have children, says one grade-school principal,who just disappear from the face of the earth. This information strikes one as astonishing. How does a child simply disappear in NYC? Efficiency in information transfer – when it comes to stock transactions, for example – is one of the city’s best developed skills. Why is it so difficult to keep track of poor children?

The unspoken answer is obviously, because people don’t care; the poor children don’t matter. Who cares if they come and go?

Janice, who is soft-spoken and black, speaks about the overcrowding of the school. I make it my business to know my fellow students. But it isn’t easy when the classes are so large. I had 45 children in my fifth grade class. The teacher sometimes didn’t know you. She would ask you, ‘What’s your name?’
You want the teacher to know your name,
says Rosie, who is Puerto Rican. The teacher asks me, ‘Are you really in this class?’ ‘Yes, I’ve been here all semester.’ But she doesn’t know my name.

This shines a different light on the conversation about care and its importance for teachers (a conversation going on over here). Quite clearly, the message being given (and received) in many inner-city and other poor schools is You don’t matter, you’re not important, we don’t care about you, there’s no reason why we should because you don’t have much value. So it’s ok if you have no gym, if the doors don’t hang straight or close properly, if you have to share your textbooks with 3 other classes, if there aren’t enough chairs to go round, if your school has 6 computers for 600 children.

I read that Philadelphia School District is facing $67 million in cuts.

The critical reviews on Amazon for this book are enlightening.

The rigging of the game

Well, I’m hanging in there and learning a few things.

The answer [to the gross inequalities] is found, at least in part, in the arcane machinery by which we finance public education. Most public schools in the US depend for their initial funding on a tax on local property. (p 54)

I didn’t know that.

There are wonderful teachers such as Corla Hawkins almost everywhere in urban schools, and sometimes a number of such teachers in a single school. It is tempting to focus on these teachers and, by doing this, to paint a hopeful portrait of the good things that go on under adverse condition. There is, indeed, a growing body of such writing; and these books are sometimes very popular, because they are consoling. (p 51)

This is what I dislike about those “uplifting” movies about schools that the US seems to produce in such quantities, although I have enjoyed some of those movies as movies: Stand & Deliver, Dead Poets Society, etc. These movies focus on individuals and help propagate the myth that the solution is individuals with character and determination; at the same time, they mask the economic, political, and racial factors which underpin the school environment, but are much harder to see and therefore less exciting to make a movie about. Kozol continues,

The rationale behind much of this writing is that pedagogic problems in our cities are not chiefly matters of injustice, inequality or segregation, but of insufficient information about teaching strategies: If we could simply learn “what works” in Corla Hawkins’s room, we’d then be in a position to repeat this all over Chicago and in every other system. But what is unique in Mrs. Hawkins’s classroom is not what she does but who she is. Warmth and humor and contagious energy cannot be replicated and cannot be written into any standardized curriculum. If they could, it would have happened long ago… (p 51)

It took an extraordinary combination of greed, racism, political cowardice and public apathy,” writes James D. Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, “to let the public schools in Chicago get so bad.” (p 72)
“Equal opportunity across the board” will not automatically “produce equality” in school performance. Still, “one doesn’t force a losing baseball team to play with seven men.” Not surprisingly, when parents of poor children or their advocates raise their voices to protest the rigging of the game, they ask initially for things that seem like fairly obvious improvements: larger library collections, a reduction in the size of classes, or a better ratio of children to school counselors. (p 77)

Chapter 2 is entitled “Other People’s Children” which reminded me of this book . I wonder which came first, or if the phrase is an echo of something older?

Savage Inequalities

Words fail me. I’m not sure I can finish this , it’s making me sick. I feel like I’m in a time warp, reading about Dickens’ London.

I looked up East St Louis on Wikipedia but apart from the crime statistics, the entry gives little hint as to the horrors depicted in Kozol’s book. Maybe he made it up. I remember reading about Buckminster Fuller’s ambitious and creative plan for the city. Too bad it never happened. That looked like fun.

These photos and commentary give a somewhat more detailed description. The photos were taken about 10 years after Kozol’s book was published. The commentary bears out some of Kozol’s descriptions

Over here are more photos and comments and questions to and from people who have some connection to the place, who were born there, live there now or went to school there. Someone asks if the city is really as bad as Kozol paints in Savage Inequalities, and someone writes back, ” Unfortunately, the situation deteriorated further after that publication….” Whoah! Altho at least a couple of commenters (including that one quoted) point out that things are looking up, apparently. I pray they are, and stay that way.

An commenter
wrote, “Don’t read this at night ~ This book will turn you into an activist”.

I sometimes get a feeling like Kozol has a deep sense of guilt about what he observes, mixed in there with the genuine compassion:

But if one knows the future that awaits them, it is terrible to see their eyes look up to you with friendliness and trust – to see this and to know what is in store for them.” (p 45)

Dang! Even the pathos is Dickensian.