Weinberg: Summer reading for teachers

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland teacher and regular Education Report blogger, has a book recommendation for you. -Katy

Steven WeinbergI 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.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Let’s Get Real

    Thanks for the suggestion and the review!

  • Hot R

    I will check it out. Thank you Steven. Although if I read a book that validates my opinions I normally think – “Why didn’t I write that?”

  • toodles

    I think the sad part is that this post excuses teachers from being innovative and trying new techniques / pedagogy in the classroom, and rather, excusing ineptitude or lack of performance / effort on their part by saying… “that research is flawed, forget it.”

    Disclaimer: 5 year HS math teacher

  • Debora


    I too, read the book and found it interesting. As a parent of a gifted, soon-to-be fifth grade daughter (math and science, her specific gifts), I believe the book speaks to the mainstream students in the class. For those teachers that ask my daughter to think like a mathematician or scientist they would actually get high results from her. Perhaps not in the class that day because they have not been allowed to use the classroom computers except to take reading tests.

    My daughter would have come home and looked up the words, then look up famous mathematicians and scientists she did not already know. I know this to be fact because she chose to think like an Aztec when thinking about mathematicians. It didn’t earn her points with the teacher, but she made an argument that they had mastered mathematical theories in a complex and interesting way.

    My point is that yes, many students will not automatically seek information and intellectual rigor on their own. However, my daughter thrives in environments where she is asked to think and “feel” outside her knowledge base. She is usually not asked to work to her capacity very often in school.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Toodles, If any part of my post discouraged teachers from being innovative or trying new techniques, it was not meant to do so. Neither Willingham nor I would want that. I tried new techniques and approaches in every one of my 40 years with the district, and Willingham devotes his entire final chapter to helping teachers make use of cognitive science to effectively change and improve their teaching.
    Recognizing the short-comings of some approaches makes you a critical thinker, not someone who excuses ineptitude.

    Debora, I’m not sure how Willingham would answer your post. I searched the web trying to find more details about his view of gifted students, and I thought I had found a good link until I read it and found it was my posting and your comment.

    Let’s Get Real and Hot R, thank you for your comments.