“…don’t follow leaders” (Bob Dylan – Subterranean Homesick Blues)
Over the past week or so I’ve been asked several times about what I think of Daniel Willingham’s book Why don’t students like school? With some embarrassment I’ve been forced to inform the inquisitors that I hadn’t actually read it. I knew much of its contents, of course, seeing as pretty much every educational blogger in the UK has reviewed, disseminated and debated it over the past year or so. In fact, its influence on teachers in the UK has been nothing short of phenomenal, so, over the past few days I’ve been making my through the book to see what all the fuss is about. Just to note, this is not a review of the book (others have done a much more thorough job of it than I can) it’s really just a few thoughts strung together concerning its success in the UK.
I have to admit that, despite being involved in either studying or teaching psychology for the best part of two decades, I hadn’t even heard of Willingham until a little over a year ago, so when his named kept cropping on Twitter and on educational blogs I thought I must have been sleepwalking through the last twenty years (my undergraduate degree is in psychology and much of my MEd was related to cognitive impairments in learning).
I found it refreshing that teachers were beginning to take an interest in cognitive psychology and educational research, yet I was slightly baffled as to why Willingham had become the poster boy for this burgeoning grassroots movement. I think I now understand.
Much of Why students don’t like school? would be familiar to most psychology graduates who studied topics such as memory and problem solving as part of their undergraduate degrees. I’ll admit to skipping a great deal of the book as I quickly realised I was returning to Karl Duncker’s Candle Problem and the Towers of Hanoi. Some of it will also be familiar to anyone with an A-level in psychology, especially the parts specifically related to working memory. My point is that essentially, there is nothing really ground-breaking here – it’s cognitive psychology, but with an educational twist.
What Willingham has wonderfully managed is to take an area of science, which is often shunned by teachers, and make it highly accessible – this is what academics are notoriously bad at. There are plenty of cognitive psychologists; just very few who have managed to capture the imagination of teachers in this way. This is evident in the educational blogs I often read. For example, I read little citing Alan Baddeley or Graham Hitch, the two giants of working memory (currently at the University of York – my own part-time stomping ground) or indeed, any other influential cognitive psychologists.
Willingham isn’t the only one who has managed to cross the divide. I suspect that one of the great success stories of the next 12 months will be Make it stick (Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel) a book full of evidence and tips on how to get your students to use their memory more effectively. This is perhaps, in part, due to the rush to devour everything cognitive, while other areas of psychology are assumed to have little relevance.
Other, equally relevant, areas have perhaps been neglected. Asbury and Plomin’s G is for Genes caused a blip of controversy (mainly by those who didn’t read it) but appears to have died away quickly without making any major impact. Similarly, the work of Australian educational psychologist Andrew Martin tends to be confined to academia (and Australia) even though its possible benefits for teachers are highly significant (his Building Classroom Success is an excellent read and supported by a host of evidence). There is also some fascinating work coming out of both The Institute for Effective Education and The Psychology in Education Research Centre (both also at York – sorry!)
Cognitive psychology might just be the flavour of the month, or it might entice teachers to stay a little longer – it remains the dominant psychological paradigm so it should be around for while. Unfortunately, there are other guests waiting to be entertained and teachers shouldn’t neglect them.
Are we simply replacing Mind/Brain Gym and VAK with Willingham and Goldacre or are we all part of new movement still finding its feet? Are we creating new celebrities whose every word we hang on to or are we looking for a new direction?
Only time will tell.