Review: 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

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 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass) 2009. 180 pages hardcover, index, table of contents, illustrations, endnotes. $24.95
Reviewed by Betsy McKenzie, Suffolk University Law Library

I highly recommend this book to libraries of all types, especially academic libraries.
This book is designed for teachers, though it would be interesting as well to parents and to students who would like to increase their learning retention and enjoyment. In it, Willingham makes a number of points useful to teachers at all levels, from kindergarten through college and post-graduate levels. The book is easy to read, and moderately entertaining. The points are easy to pull out of the text, laid out in special fonts and boxes. There are entertaining illustrations and puzzles to help make his points.

The book builds chapter by chapter, taking the reader through cognitive theory and applying the author’s expertise to the teaching arena. Dr. Willingham is a highly regarded cognitive scientist teaching at University of Virginia, but he seems to be very good at translating from his specialized field for others. I did not really catch fire reading this book, feeling that I saw a strong connection between this book and my own thinking about the problems of teaching legal research, until about two thirds of the way through.

Suddenly, at page 104, Willingham is talking about the difference between experts and novices:

… transfer [of previous learning to new situations] is so difficult because novices tend to focus on surface features [that is the surface difference between problems] and are not very good at seeing the abstract, functional relationships among problems that are key to solving them [that is, seeing the abstract similarities that make problems analogous, so one can transfer the solution of a previous problem to the new problem]. Well that is what experts are great at. They have representations of problems and situations in their long-term memories and those representations are abstract. That’s why experts are able to ignore unimportant details and home in on useful information; thinking functionally makes it obvious what’s important. That’s also why they show good transfer to new problems. New problems differ in surface structure, but experts recognize the deep, abstract structure. That’s also why their judgments usually are sensible, even if they are not quite right.

This is what lawyers and librarians mean when they say, “You get a feel for the shape of the law.” They mean that after you do enough legal research, you begin to see the underlying similarities that let you solve the research problem by recognizing the abstract, functional relationship to previous research problems you have solved, which may look on the surface like very different problems. And you can very quickly guess where the answer will lie, and look for it much more efficiently. But it has never been something I could articulate for students any more clearly than the little quip about knowing the shape of the law.

I now have a way to articulate for my students what I am trying to do with the classroom discussions. If they will discuss and argue about what they find, not to show me or get my approval, but to explain to themselves and help themselves see what they know and how they came to know it, they will be stepping much farther along the path toward making themselves into experts. They will be taking the time they spent on the worksheets and supercharging it, by making it into a much richer experience.
The index is a good one, and the table of contents is very helpful. The illustrations and boxes that pull the points out of the text will make this book easy to pull off the shelf and remind myself quickly what the various points in each chapter were about. But I think the reason I recommend this book and will keep it on hand is the inspiration I found in it, and the help in articulating my own, scarcely verbalized, but strongly felt thoughts about teaching legal research and learning all kinds of skills.

Besty McKenzie is director of the Suffolk University Law Library in Boston.

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November 2009

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