By Katy Murphy
Monday, June 28th, 2010 at 12:54 pm in Steven Weinberg.
Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and regular Education Report blogger, has a book recommendation for you. -Katy
I hope the teachers who read this blog are not off on vacation yet, because I have a book recommendation I think they will enjoy and find useful: “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom” by Daniel T. Willingham (Jossey-Bass, 2009).
Many of us in education have been to workshops where the speaker has claimed that new breakthroughs in cognitive science (how the brain works) call for a whole new approach to teaching. Willingham is much less prescriptive. He recognizes the differences between an experimental lab and the classroom and respects the “craft knowledge” that teachers have obtained over the years. He has limited the number of principles that he covers in his book to nine because he says he only knows nine that have enough data to support them to make them worth discussing.
Many of the principles that Willingham discusses are well-known to teachers, but he analyzes their implications very thoroughly and leaves the reader with ideas for how to tweak their lessons to make them more effective. For example, in his section “Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” he points out that people have to be thinking about something before they can remember it and goes on to discuss types of lessons that lead students to think more about the process of completing the assignment than they do about the meaning of the subject matter. I immediately thought of several of my own lessons that made this mistake and how I could alter them to be more effective.
I also appreciated Willingham refuting some of the claims about “brain science” that I have always been suspicious of. Recently there has been a push to design lessons in which students “think like scientists” or “think like historians.” Willingham points out that this idea is based on a flawed assumption, “that students are cognitively capable of doing what scientists and historians do…In truth, no one thinks like a scientist or a historian without a great deal of training.”
Another widely promoted concept that Willingham questions is trying to tailor lessons to students’ “cognitive styles” or “multiple intelligences.” He discusses the scientific research that supports each of the those concepts, and the limits to the research, and ends by reassuring teachers, “If you have felt nagging guilt that you have not evaluated each of your students to assess their cognitive style, or if you think you know what their styles are and have not adjusted your teaching to them—don’t worry about it. There is no reason to think that doing so will help. And if you were thinking of buying a book or inviting someone in for a professional development session on one of these topics, I advise you to save your money.”
There is a great deal of pleasure in reading a book that validates your opinion that some things you been told in inservice trainings are nonsense, but the real value of the book is when it helps you see new and different ways you can present information more effectively. I think any teacher will find ways to improve his or her instruction based on the principles in this book.