Why Don’t Students Like School?

Why Don’t Students Like School?

I’ve started in on Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School. The sub-line is more informative: “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom.” See here, here or here.

Without giving an in-depth summary or review of the book, here are some of the more fascinating insights I’ve gained thus far (through 2 chapters). I’m sharing them largely as tidbits for reflection rather than being particularly analytical:

Thinking and Memory

  • Compared to the majority of the brain’s other functions, conscious thinking is actual rather slow, inefficient, and clumsy.
  • “Thinking” is defined as combining information in new ways and that information comes from both the environment and one’s long-term memory.
  • The argument that we ought to focus on teaching people/kids to evaluate information rather than acquire new knowledge because of the volumes of information readily available in the internet is false (I used to hold the evaluate rather than acquire view).
  • “Working memory” is the part of the brain where thinking and awareness take place.


Knowledge is essential to reading comprehension. When it comes to learning and thinking, the effectiveness of our working memory doesn’t depend on the amount of information we are trying to take it, it depends on the number of meaningful objects, or “chunks” of related information we are trying to process.

The more “chunking” we can do with all the information around us, the more and faster we can learn. Chunking requires background knowledge in order to group things in our working memory, combining information and tying new information to existing information. Therefore, “background knowledge allows chunking, which makes more room in working memory, which makes it easier to relate ideas, and therefore to comprehend” new ideas or knowledge. Empirical studies have demonstrated — in reading comparisons, for instance — that the amount of comprehension depended far more on a reader’s prior knowledge than their reading level as indicated by standardized reading tests. To sum, comprehension depends on background knowledge. The more you know, the faster you learn, and the more you retain. 

Willingham addresses the proverbial (and demonstrable) “fourth-grade slump” whereby students from at-risk or underserved backgrounds tend to lag a grade level behind their peers in reading ability suddenly fall even further behind starting at fourth grade:

“reading tests start to emphasize comprehension. As described here, comprehension requires background knowledge, and that’s where kids from privileged homes have an edge. They come to a school with a bigger vocabulary and more knowledge about the world than underprivileged kids. And because knowing things makes it easier to learn new things, the gap…widens” (p.28).

Background knowledge is necessary for cognitive skills.

Long-term memory plays a much greater role in problem solving than specific critical thinking skills. Memory is “the cognitive process of first resort.” It is naturally what our brain turns to first before conscious thinking in working memory. Consider the difference in thinking required by a 15-year old student driver versus a 40-year old adult who’s been driving in urban traffic to work for decades. The latter has to do very little concrete thinking because of the vast knowledge bank (also called “experience”) they have accumulated: road routes, vehicle speeds, traffic patterns, muscle control, foot-hand-eye coordination, road locations, turn signals, exits, and so on.

Factual knowledge improves your memory

Experimental studies demonstrate that having a greater amount of background knowledge directly correlates to the amount of newly acquired information you retain as time goes by. Consider two people, one of which is a dedicated football fan and the other who knows virtually nothing about the game. Imagine they both are asked to read a summary of a college football game from the prior weekend. Which would you suppose would recall more details or have an easier time recalling those details from that article 24 hours later? The more knowledge you have of something, the greater your memory when absorbing new information because you have a much greater bank of knowledge to tie it to. Having factual knowledge makes it easier to acquire more factual knowledge.

Einstein was wrong…sort of.

Einstein supposedly once said, “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Willingham hopes to persuade us that Einsten was wrong. I concur. Knowledge is required for the kind of imagination that is needed for creativity, problem-solving, entrepreneurial work, and good decision-making. It is true that one can have knowledge and not be imaginative, but it is difficult to grasp how one could be imaginative without have a meaningful well of knowledge (data, facts, information, ideas) which are the raw ingredients for imagination. This is all the more ironic given the incredible wealth of knowledge which Einstein himself so obviously possessed. What I would contend Einstein actually meant (or should have meant) is this: you must acquire knowledge so that you may then use it to be imaginative in a way that changes the world around you. 

But knowledge you must have.

For Teachers

Willingham offers these implications for educators.

  • Build a good knowledge base before emphasizing critical thinking.
  • Do whatever you can to get kids to READ…and not music, social media, or sports sites on the internet.
  • Knowledge acquisition can be…and often is…incidental. Often, the best acquisition of knowledge happens by exposure in the midst of other things than in concentrated study or memorization; e.g., factual data wrapped in math or science problems, reading good historical fiction, watching documentaries, thoughtfully written movies, conversation with friends, reading the news, and the like.
  • Start early. Which also means early intervention in building exposure to the world of knowledge is both the greatest challenge and greatest gift we can give to kids.
  • Make knowledge meaningful. Simply expelling lists of facts (or dates or concepts) is not all that useful. Instead, connect the dots, make it interesting, tie facts to familiar things, make it about the excitement of discovery rather than the drudgery of memorizing another useless piece of data.




The Death of the Good

The Death of the Good

Great video here from Prager on why modern art is so bad. But it applies to the question of truth in general.

The loss of an objective aesthetic in art has led to a loss of the meaning of beauty, the celebration of the scatalogical, and the move, as he puts it in the video, from the transcendent to the trashy.

Art is a window to the human soul, which we peer out of to see visions of what could be or peer into for pictures of what is. In either view, the aesthetic of of much of modern art offers nothing of real substance or meaning because it is not grounded in any objective standard of what is good, excellent, or beautiful. The loss of an objective aesthetic is not merely a matter of art, then, but of culture’s understanding of truth in all it’s forms.

The highest ideal is no longer the nobility of the transcendent but the expression of one’s desires above all else. Here, then, art has become a progressive, intellectual, and secularized society’s own golden calf. Except this time, the calf looks like us and it’s neither excellent or beautiful.

The truth about society, marriage, sexuality, gender, or the meaning of personhood itself has followed precisely this same trajectory as classical art. There are no standards, no objective reality. Nothing except the sum of one’s feelings about, well…whatever.

In this sense, as a window (or mirror) of culture, modern art’s obsessive navel-gazing and deification of self-actualization both reflects and helps feed the slow death of society.

Stop Trying to Lead and Start Making a Difference

Stop Trying to Lead and Start Making a Difference

Forbes ran a great blog article recently on 7 reasons why millennials fail to get promoted at work. You’ve got to go read it. Seriously. Especially if you are a millennial…or you have a job.

I’m not going to rehash that list here, but the 7 reasons are spot on. They got me thinking of some traits that I’ve observed over the last 20 years that makes for successful, valuable, and transformational members of a organization.  I’m purposefully not putting this in the context of what makes a good leader because, while this happens to be true, its really not about leadership in spite of our obsession with it. Its about being great citizens of a community of people engaged in a common endeavor or effort.

This list is by no means exhaustive or categorical; merely practical observations about what makes some people shine brighter and with greater effect. People who do these things make a difference. Leadership is made possible and happens when these folks show up and do their thing.

  1. Find a problem and solve it or a job that needs doing and do it
  2. Be a self-starter, stop needing to be told exactly what to do
  3. Practice being curious, think and learn about things outside your job description
  4. Become an expert at something but never stop being teachable
  5. Learn to dig beyond the surface and look for other angles, other perspectives, or hidden problems
  6. Master the art of careful, attentive listening
  7. Be a great asker of questions
  8. Take risks, don’t be afraid of mistakes, learn from failure
  9. Learn to write and verbally communicate correctly and clearly — yes, your spelling and grammar really do matter!
  10. Study art, music, the Bible, and philosophy. You’ll be amazed at how these disciplines can influence any kind of work (this is a good place for a rant about how STEM-only thinking is killing American education…)

One interesting note in the Forbes piece. 80% of millennial see themselves as leaders and embrace the rather curious and vague notion that anybody can lead from any position. [Just one of the numerous vague definitional problems the (my) field of leadership suffers from.] Yet, according to Forbes, only 12% of this group had held leadership or management positions in 2013, a number that had been steadily declining.

Of course, as Forbes has also noted, it could be that this due to a lack of failure to provide leadership training to millennials, or the different set of values many millennial hold that may cause them to not remain at one organization long enough to be promoted. Whatever the case may be, our culture has an obsession with leadership. We are in a steady slide backwards for people who actually can do it, even at the highest levels. I wonder if some of what we see in the millennial generation’s apathy about some of these things is just a subconcious weariness with what often is a shallow and manufactured industry that seems to exist only to generate revenue for those who come up with new leadership secrets.

A better approach is to stop focusing on trying to be a leader and start trying to be a better, more well-rounded, informed citizen who is genuinely interested in the possibilities of the world around you. Focus on how to make the people and organization around you better because of your presence there. Do good work. Let people matter. Be curious about everything. Make a difference. Leadership tends to come along more organically when that happens.

Teaching Five Minds

Teaching Five Minds

Howard Gardner is the psychologist and educator who introduced the idea of multiple intelligences. More recently, Gardner has suggested five distinct mental abilities, or minds, that are important for educators to cultivate in order for students to be effective and successful in the globalized complex world of the digital information age [1]. The first three minds are cognitive, the last two relational:

  1. The Disciplined Mind masters key subjects.
  2. The Synthesizing Mind organizes information to make sense to self and others new connections.
  3. The Creating Mind breaks new ground and discovers new concepts.
  4. The Respectful Mind understands and appreciates the differences of others.
  5. The Ethical Mind seeks to identify and fulfill one’s obligations to others and society.

What’s interesting is that Gardner here is not writing as a psychologist but as an observer of culture. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Gardner said

When I talk about the five minds for the future, there is no scientific claim that these are the five minds that God gave us or that are innate or that we have to develop. Rather, I’m making the case that in the future people need to have minds that are disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. [2]

Disciplined, capable of synthesis, creative, respectful, and ethical. It’s a good simple list that faculty and teachers can use to help students understand both what is expected of them and why.

Following the instructions and rules, for instance, is a form of building discipline. Disciplined people who can understand and work within parameters, who can get things right the first time, who can stay focused and on task, even when that task is no fun: this makes for a good citizen and a good worker. Or the the ability to synthesize: it means better problem-solving and critical thinking, necessary skills in any workplace or organizational setting.

Feedback and Formation

Gardner gives us some vocabulary and concepts to approach the learning task in a better manner. I suggest teaching faculty keep this list close at hand and use it to help shape their own thinking, their own minds, about the various aspects they need to cultivate in the mind of a student. Great learning, holistic character and citizenship formation  (the goal of classical liberal arts learning), and productive skill development are never the product of just one single way of thinking.

One suggestion is to use this list as you are reviewing student work. Do any of these minds seem applicable to the task at hand. And, if so, what feedback could you provide to help strengthen or better cultivate that particular mind?

A second suggestion is to use these minds as a lens for helping you communicate with students each week or session. What general things can you say in lectures, announcements, or general class discussion to help stimulate one or more of these minds? I have discovered in my own teaching that when I set expectations high (Disciplining) for students but then take time to explain my reasoning and to help them see how their growth is my motive (Respectful and Synthesizing) that students actually come to value my toughness and rise to meet or exceed those expectations. Time and time again, I have seen students grow to the place where a high level of productivity and integrated, holistic thinking has become voluntary and normal.

A Student Model

I can see possibly developing a model for student success based off of Gardner’s work in which each of the 5 minds describes a list of more particular responsibilities, habits, characteristics, or skills that successful learners demonstrate. This model could then be incorporated into student orientation and introductory courses. It would also provide a framework for helping assess and coach students throughout a course.


[1] Gardner, Howard. Five Minds for the Future. Harvard Business School Press, 2006.
[2] https://hbr.org/2007/04/harvard-business-ideacast-37-f.html



The Church and the World

The Church and the World

“The Church does have a mission in the world because it advances an incarnational faith, one in which God himself took human form. So we cannot deny the human, and hence, political dimension to the Gospel but if one does not get the mix right, one gets confused on one side or the other. One error says that we should abandon the world and run away from it, and the other error says that we should on the world and run it.”[1]

I have been reading Fr. Robert Sirico’s The Soul of Liberty. Father Sirico is the founder and President of The Acton Institute, an think-tank I highly recommend for their splendid work to promote a free and virtuous society based on human liberty and religious truth.

One of the most transformative implications of the Church’s mission in the world — proclaiming the Gospel of the redemption of all creation through Christ — is the dignity, worth, and entrepreneurial creativity of  human persons made in the image of God. In human history, it has only been in societies rooted in this biblical worldview that equality, freedom, prosperity, and justice have flourished. Only a truly Christian, biblical view of the created order leads to an economic and political system in which “individuals have the right to own, to create, to contract, and to prosper” but where those rights are “tied to a profound sense of moral and social obligation.” Secular (rejecting religious truth) systems inevitably lead to either tyrannical despotism, fascism, or anarchy. The French (and Haitian) and Bolshevik (Communism) Revolutions, German National Socialism are three modern examples. Only a Judeo-Christian view of the world (and subsequently, economics, property, and law) leads to this necessary balance of freedom and internal moral, social obligation.

Sirico raises a very important point about the incarnational nature of the Church in the world as well as the need to get the mix right. The doctrine of creation means that the fundamental activities of human society — economics, trade, use of property, the rule of law, and politics — are not products of a fallen human society but rather expressions of the imago Dei in culture. And, as such, has profound implications for the our understanding of what it means to be a human being living in a physical world with others in a society. We cannot limit our understanding of the incarnational aspect of the the gospel merely to the spiritual or physical needs of individuals. Rather, the Creation and the Incarnation beckon us to speak to the economic, legal, and political systems of our day. Not in the effort to “run the world” but to point culture to its telios, its created purpose found only in God the Creator.

[1] The Soul of Liberty by Fr. Robert Sirico (The Acton Institute)