Why Don’t Students Like School? (D. Willingham)

The extent to which teachers should be involved in research is a contentious topic, but Willingham’s book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ leaves the reader in no doubt that there is value in understanding some basic principles of cognitive science. Parallels between education and medicine are not always helpful, but it must be true that we should expect a teacher to understand learning and cognition just as we expect a doctor to understand the workings of the human body.

Much of the book is built around research into working memory: the area where cognition takes place by combining aspects of our environment with information drawn from our long-term memory (see diagram below). Willingham uses this idea to explain a range of limitations and difficulties which can prevent pupils from retaining information. Rather than a comprehensive summary, I’ve picked out a few ideas that struck a chord with me bearing in mind that I’m particularly interested in how this book is useful to schools in adapting to linear qualifications.

Working Memory

A simple figure to illustrate the basic components of memory

Working Memory – a Fundamental Bottleneck of Human Cognition

For me, the standout idea of the book is summarised in this quote: “The lack of space in working memory is a fundamental bottleneck of human cognition”. This also stood out to me because, with all the talk about growth mindset and neuroplasticity, this appears to be a relatively fixed aspect of intelligence. A lot of the book hinges on this idea because the working memory is the keystone in the whole process of transferring knowledge from our environment into our long-term memory (aka learning!).

So if we can’t change the size of our working memories, but want to increase retention and recall, we need to think about the other components in the equation. In particular, Willingham is interested in how we can reduce and focus the demand on working memory.

A good illustration of how our brain naturally does this is by trying to memorise two lists of letters. First, try this one:







According to Willingham, the average recall on this task is about seven letters. Now try the same task with this list:








The second list is much easier to remember because the acronyms are more familiar. You may have noticed that the sequence of letters in both lists is identical and only the placement of the line breaks has changed. The reason the second list is easier is because we have reduced the number of meaningful objects needing to be retained in the working memory.


Key question: How often do we actively reflect on the demands of our lessons on working memory?

Memory is the Residue of Thought

Another key idea is Willingham’s assertion that ‘Memory is the residue of thought’. Simply put, ‘If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it!’. Willingham gives an excellent example in the book whereby a teacher uses a hook within the lesson to engage pupils’ attention, but this attention-grabbing activity dominates the working memory rather than the real learning point of the lesson.

One interesting suggestion put forward in the book is the idea of structuring lessons using the principles of storytelling (causality, conflict, complications and character). The idea behind this is that part of the lesson is spent setting up the problems and questions that pupils will solve as the lesson progresses. This setup engages pupils with the content of the lesson and makes them more likely to retain it. This idea links to another I read about in a David Didau book about the benefits of generative learning over recall. If we focus pupils on the problem and ask them to generate solutions then they are far more likely to recall the information later. In short, the challenge for educators is to focus the efforts of the working memory as closely as possible on what we want pupils to learn so that there is more chance of this being transferred into their long term memories.

 This concept is a reminder that finding the questions within a lesson is so important in the planning process. Willingham summarises: “The material I want students to learn is actually the answer to a question. On its own, the answer is almost never interesting. But if you know the question, the answer may be quite interesting. That’s why making the question clear is so important.”

Key question: How often do we review each lesson plan or activity in terms of what the student is likely to think about?

Key question: Do we spend enough time defining the questions before revealing the answers

Why are Abstract Ideas so Difficult?

As an English teacher, my curiosity was piqued by the chapter headed ‘Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?’. If we go back to the diagram of working memory, it is clear that we understand things in relation to what we already know. According to Willingham, much of what we retain is concrete and the human brain is not well adapted to transferring this to abstract ideas and applying these to new concepts. A sub-heading in this chapter neatly states that ‘Understanding Is Remembering in Disguise’. Taking this back to the diagram, the working memory is not capable of instantly understanding complex ideas in our environment: it needs to draw on factual information stored in the long-term memory.

In order to explain this challenge, Willingham makes a distinction between shallow knowledge and deep knowledge. One limitation of human cognition is that we are too often distracted by the surface structure of a problem. In order to be able to recognise the deep structure of a question, we need to see lots of examples and be able to relate them to each other to find patterns.  I know that in recent years this has been an increasing challenge in Maths papers where the trend is towards more questions where the deep structure is hidden behind a surface structure or scenario.

In terms of what this looks like in the classroom, Willingham suggests the following:

  • Providing lots of examples and asking students to compare them
  • Making deep knowledge the emphasis in discussions and classroom activities
  • Having realistic expectations of deep knowledge but always maintaining this as the goal


Key Question: How do we support pupils in moving from shallow knowledge to deep knowledge of concepts?

Drilling and Testing

You will no doubt have noticed that the ideas above have a lot to do with what is now referred to as mastery. How important is it for students to master basic concepts, that is to have a complete an comprehensive knowledge of them, before progressing? In the chapter ‘Is Drilling Worth It?’ Willingham asks whether or not there is a place in modern education for drilling pupils on the key concepts in each subject.

The chapter begins by stating ‘It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice’. But the fundamental question, both in this chapter and in wider thinking about the subject of mastery, is how much practice is enough? Should we stop practising a skill once we’ve learnt it, or seek to develop these skills further.

At this point Willingham makes an argument which may seem counter-intuitive to us in the current educational climate where progress is paramount. He argues that we should continue to practise skills even when, by the law of diminishing returns, the improvement stops being noticeable. He goes on to present three arguments in support of this:

  1. ‘it reinforces the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced skills’
  2. ‘it protects against forgetting’
  3. ‘it improves transfer’.

For me, the crucial idea in this chapter in relation to linear exams is that practice supports transfer of knowledge. By repeating a cognitive process, it allows us to gain a better understanding of the deep structures of problems and this is important if we are going to recognise these structures when we see them in new contexts (e.g. in a final exam).

Willingham recognises that drilling pupils on factual information is likely to have a crushing effect on their motivation. But there are certain key concepts which pupils need to understand in order to access more sophisticated ideas. By focusing on mastery in these threshold concepts, we free up more of the working memory to process new information and more complex ideas. Without mastery in the basics, each new idea will be competing with these fundamentals for space in the working memory.

The final question here is when and how should we should practise skills and revise learning. I won’t go into lots of detail on this, but essentially the book advocates familiar ideas around spaced and interleaved practice. This is nicely illustrated in the example below which also helpfully draws the distinction between short-term performance and long-term learning. Clearly in this example linear exams mean that we need to focus on learning that leads to a better performance in the second test. The first test is actually fairly irrelevant although I wonder how often we focus here instead because of the demand for ever more visible and immediate progress?

Study test

Key question: What are the threshold concepts in each of our subjects and how do we support pupils in mastering them?

Key question: How is the curriculum (and its delivery) structured to deliver long-term learning gains?



Didau, D (2015). What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (Wales: Crown House Publishing)

Willingham, D (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? (San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass)

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