Is Daniel Willingham the new Mind Gym?

“…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.


5 thoughts on “Is Daniel Willingham the new Mind Gym?

  1. Doug Holton

    It’s basically educational psychology and cognitive psychology 101. Which is good and bad. Or, I should say, it has limitations that folks should be aware of.

    A lot of the stuff is useful and good to know as a teacher and a student.

    But some of the stuff is out of date. Some of the stuff has limitations that are not stated. A good deal of the stuff was established in very short laboratory-based studies of unmotivated college freshmen, and tend to not generalize well to real classroom learning. A lot of the stuff only considers low level, rote learning and memorization, not deeper learning, conceptual learning, understanding, transfer, empathy, etc.

    Here are some examples of the problem.

    The testing effect. It’s a well established cognitive effect. If subjects are aware they will be tested on how well they memorize a list of items, they’ll do better. And some like Pashler and now arguing to apply that in education. Sure, to some moderate extent that could help rote learning. But a lack of testing is definitely not a problem in K-12 education. An over-emphasis on testing is causing students stress and focusing on the wrong things (like speed instead of learning). See for example Jo Boaler’s videos about this with respect to learning math in her MOOCs:

    Another crystal clear example is John Hattie’s meta-analyses that are hugely popular in education now. Most of them are just fine. Feedback is incredibly important for learning, for example. But again, his meta-analyses are often of studies that just measured rote learning. So for example with problem-based learning (students work in teams on complex, real-world problems), Hattie shows it as only having a 0.15 effect size, and anything below 0.40 he considers bad and not worth it. However, in studies of problem-based learning that measure higher order learning and transfer, the effect size is much larger.

    Cognitive load theory (also born out of 80s cognitive psychology) is another thing that just has a lot of methodological and conceptual problems when trying to apply it to education. Even if it were correct, it was essentially saying that we just need to spoon feed learners examples that are already worked out:

    As a counter or supplement to this 80s cognitive psychology / educational psychology stuff, it can help to learn about some things that have been researched more recently and in real learning environments. See work done in the learning sciences. Research methods like design-based research (as a counter to traditional A vs. B studies). Newer frameworks and approaches like situated cognition (90s) and embodied cognition (00s). And hey, maybe a little Development to go along with this mountain of Research we already have. Fund new educational software, interactive curriculum, new models of education, etc.:

  2. evidenceintopractice

    “Are we simply replacing Mind Gym and VAK with Willingham and Goldacre or are we all part of new movement still finding its feet?”

    You’re right that the teaching profession has a bad track record when it comes to credulity and creating gurus. I’ve never understood why it gravitates towards gimmicks so readily! But your comparison is also unfair – Willingham and Goldacre honestly base their views upon their interpretation of the evidence, whereas Brain Gym and VAK have no legitimate foundation whatsoever. They also both attempt to make balanced claims – frequently pointing out the limitations or the complexities in their position – and neither tries to convince teachers that they are offering a panacea for all our problems.

    Yes, they are perhaps a ‘flavour of the month’ (amongst the micro-community of bloggers and tweeters at least) but as ‘fad diets’ go it’s a lot healthier for the profession than some of the snake-oil it’s been swallowing!

    1. Marc Smith Post author

      Thanks for commenting.

      Of course, Willingham is not the same as VAK or Brain Gym and the growing number of teachers interested in educational research are looking towards more credible explanations – as I said, this is a good thing – better Willingham and Goldacre than VAK (I would agree here). This issue arises when teachers (perhaps inadvertently) adopt individuals and elevate them to guru status (in the same way as teachers have accepted the likes of VAK) in an uncritical way.

      I also made the point about Asbury/Plomin – even though the evidence is sound for a genetic basis for intelligence, the educational establishment tended to attack this because it didn’t fit with their views – few read the research and so decided that it was too reductionist, when in fact it is nothing of the sort. I wrote about it here

  3. Ben Goldacre


    I’m no celebrity, I’ve never given anyone charismatic advice about what to do in a classroom, and if anything I’m waging a war *against* experts, a war that has been waged for many years in medicine (with significant pushback from the eminent, as I explain in the piece linked below).

    All I’m saying is: look at the evidence, learn about evidence, think of ways to integrate gathering and criticising evidence into everyday practice as seamlessly as possible. That’s the path away from gurus. Finding out what works and then doing it is a good way to drive up standards.

    Ben Goldacre


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