Plain Talk about Reading  

May 26, 2015
I want to thank the board for allowing me to attend Plain Talk About Reading in New Orleans. One of the keynote speakers was Daniel Willingham who earned his B.A. from Duke in 1983, his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard in 1990, and is currently a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. His research is focused on how the brain learns and remembers and the application to K-16 education. Although he has never taught at the K-12 level I was very impressed with his knowledge of what teachers could do with this information. I bought his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? in which he bridges the gap between laboratory research and hectic classrooms. He has a systematic and yet understanding approach to addressing educators’ concerns about daily classroom activities. He sees the responsibilities that educators have to undertake and directly speaks to the reality of standardized testing, time constraints, and varying levels of ability in the classroom. Willingham not only provides teachers with current findings in neuroscience, but also validates their own activities and lesson plans. There are also action plans that educators can apply in the Implications for the Classroom segment provided at the end of every chapter. I enjoyed how each section began with a relevant question that could be asked by educators for example: “Why Is It So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?” (Chapter 4), “How Can I Help Slow Learners?” (Chapter 8). He then links the neuroscience research with the question at hand providing a horde of examples and explanations.

Willingham’s book discusses nine principles of the mind that cognitive science has found are always applicable in laboratory settings as well as the classroom. Following are the nine principles with the most important classroom implication in italics.

1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers. Think of to-be-learned material as answers, and take the time necessary to explain to students the questions.

2. Factual knowledge precedes skill. It is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic.

3. Memory is the residue of thought. The best barometer for every lesson plan is what you require teachers to think about because that is what they will remember.

4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know. Always make deep knowledge your goal, spoken and unspoken, but recognize that shallow knowledge will come first.

5. Proficiency requires practice. Think carefully about which material students need at their fingertips, and practice it over time.

6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training. Strive for deep understanding in your students, not the creation of new knowledge.

7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning. Think of lesson content, not student differences, driving decisions about how to teach.

8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work. Always talk about successes and failures in terms of effort, not ability.

9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved. Improvement requires more than experience; it also requires conscious effort and feedback.

Daniel Willingham provides suggestions for educators that are sensible and insightful. He provides fundamental cognitive principles that are scientific and yet applicable to the classroom. Many of the above principles are reflected in the work of other educational researchers. I enjoyed learning from him by listening to him speak and by reading his book.

-by Susan Evans, Teaching and Learning Coordinator

-Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham, published by Jossey-Bass, 2009.