A book I checked out of my school library is titled Why Students Don’t Like School and it’s by Daniel Willingham. I was struck by his statement, as a cognitive psychologist, that we learn best through stories. He says that a story is defined by the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications, and character.
causality, events are related to each other
conflict, there’s a worthy adversary
complications, subproblems arise
character, revealed by their actions
We use story structure in order to communicate b/c
We know the structure, so we can interpret the story
It is interesting b/c it demands inference and interpretation
and it’s easy to remember b/c we have to think about the story’s meaning in order to make inferences.
Willingham’s focus in learning is always on meaning. Later he offers ways to learn things that do not possess any obvious meaning but still must be learned
Successful teachers are BOTH engaging AND organized. A well-organized teacher who can’t engage students fails to reach them and an engaging teachers who is not organized reaches them with nothing (my interpretation).
Students attend to teacher STYLE and the emotional bond that generates leads to learning.
The teacher needs to focus on the question rather than the answer. That is what is intellectually engaging.
Abstraction, so difficult for beginner learners, is the goal of schooling.
Cramming for tests may lead to passing grades but later poor performance due to forgetting. I note that teachers continue to advise students of upcoming tests and I was excoriated once on a listserv by a highly respected teacher for giving unannounced tests. Yet teachers routinely complain of students’ poor performance on tasks.
In dealing with practice, Willingham distinguishes it from drilling. Yet he routinely conflates mental with physical learning. So many of his examples come from tennis, music, and other activities with a physical basis. He does use many example from mathematics, but I need convincing on that; memorizing the multiplication or periodic tables is meager stuff compared to what students are expected to cram into their brains to finish worksheets and pass tests. He says automaticity is the building block of expertise. I am uncomfortable with that when applied to language learning b/c it opens the door to a focus on grammatical forms as the “blocks”. He also uses the word “skill” to label mental abilities and I recall how Frank Smith says skills are physical and do improve with practice whereas mental abilities are not skills.
The area gets murky for me. Willingham talks about reading ability in a way that Frank Smith debunks, i.e. that the reader interprets letters rather than whole words. That, of course, is the Whole Language debate, an area of extreme blood-lust among educators. My guess is that Willingham is relying on the same reading experts Smith debunks.
While I didn’t read the book in detail, I did get to most of it and what stood out for me was Willingham’s recognition of the power of stories to teach and his emphasis on the dual qualities of engagement and organization required of a competent teacher. Most people, not all, can learn to be organized; the author states that style and the ability to engage are personality traits. What do we do with that?