Monday, July 12, 2010

An easy-read on Cognitive Science in the classroom

When I first heard about Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School? I immediately ran to the nearest bookstore to buy it. (It helped that the Borders on 14th and F is closing and is having a whole-store sale... but regardless, I immediately went out and bought the book.)

The subtitle reads: "A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom" so I immediately thought it was right up my ally.

It was, but as fascinated as I was, I was equally disappointed. While it is easy to read, I couldn't help feel that Willingham isn't a fan of teachers. He seems to go out of his way to tell us what a hard job we have, but in a way that is almost condescending. He seems frustrated by teachers, and writes in a way I wonder if he was told by his editor, "You know, this book is great, but it's above teachers' heads. Dumb it down a bit, add some pop culture references, use slower language, and pat teachers on the back a lot so they'll keep reading".

Or maybe I'm just too sensitive.

Regardless, the book is fascinating and does an excellent job of explaining working memory. As a teacher there is nothing more frustrating than sitting through a Staffing meeting with your school psych, guidance couselors, admin, etc to go over the results of the Psychological evaluations for a particular student and learning that your student has almost no working memory. What does that mean, and, more importantly, what on earth are you suppose to do about it?? As a classroom teacher I remember the absolute feeling of loss I'd feel staring at those numbers. SO, now I'm suppose to go back to my room, by myself with 20 other kids, and teach him to tell time when he can't hold the names of numbers in his head?

I know I'll be sharing the first few chapters on memory with my teachers and coworkers when we're back in school.

I guess what disappointed me the most was that overall, the book was just a repetition of classes I took while getting my Masters. I did get my Masters from the same university where Willingham teaches, and it seems that my Masters curriculum could have spun off of Willingham's work. Then again, I always hear people lament about their poor education classes, which at times surprises me. My undergraduate education classes were horrid, so I know that awful education classes exist, but my Masters experience was fabulous. It made me a better teacher, and I know I wouldn't succeed in special ed without it. That being said, Willingham's book covers a lot of exactly what I found important in my classes, and exactly what changed my teaching. Throughout my special ed classes we all frequently found it frustrating that the only reason we were getting these classes was because we worked with the special education population. I suppose our kids are the ones who need the absolute most help, and therefore it is far more imperative that we learn how to get information into their little heads, despite their small working memories and limitations due to their disabilities. Still, what I learned there, and what is covered in Willingham's book, I use with all kids.

The book tackles the questions that we struggled the most with in classes- and had many classes to fight back and finally feel comfortable with the answer that yes, our professor was correct. Willingham discusses learning styles and how Gardner never intended us to use them in education, and how they are not actually helpful. (Many of our classes were spent argueing with our professor until finally, after reading enough studies & doing our own projects with students, we realized she was correct- learning styles are somewhat of a myth). Willingham also covers the importance of learning facts, putting information into long-term memory to help free up space in working memory (ie, memorization) and other techniques that may feel wrong, but in fact, once you accept them (as we eventually did in our Masters classes) we realize our kids absolutely need this kind of teaching. This understanding is exactly what truly changed my teaching and turned around non-readers.

So, I do recommend Willingham's book if you're looking for an interesting read this summer- it's quick & easy to read, and maybe you wont be as annoyed as I was by his teacher attitude. What's in his book is what made me a better teacher, and it served as a great reminder/refresher of what good teaching truly is.

1 comment:

Jenny said...

Willingham drives me a little bit nuts. He has some good points to make but I always feel prickly reading his stuff (or watching his videos on youtube). Check out his guest post on The Answer Sheet today, one of the Washington Post's blogs.