Bryan Caplan  

Willingham, Flow, and Why Students Don't Like School

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Daniel Willingham is a psychology prof at UVA and author of the American Educator's "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" column.  In Why Don't Students Like School, Willingham tries to popularize psychology's main lessons for practicing educators.  It's a fun read, and I learned a few lessons.  But overall, his book disappointed me, beginning with the first chapter's attempt to answer the title question.

Why don't students like school?  Willingham's answer, as far as I can tell, is that the challenge/reward pattern is wrong.  People enjoy learning when they get a sense of flow - and people get a sense of flow when they make steady progress on moderately difficult problems.

It's easy to believe that lack of flow is one reason why students don't like school.  But what makes this reason special?  When the first chapter is nearly over, Willingham suddenly admits:
Any teacher knows there are lots of reasons that a student might or might not enjoy school.  (My wife loved it, but primarily for social reasons). 
He then explains that flow is important "from a cognitive perspective," but doesn't argue that a cognitive perspective is particularly valuable.  Even worse, he hastily dismisses the competing cognitive hypothesis that the content of the curriculum might bore students:
But I don't think content drives interest.  We've all attended a lecture or watched a TV show (perhaps against our will) about a subject we thought we weren't interested in, only to find ourselves fascinated; and it's easy to get bored even when you usually like a topic.
This seems awfully far-fetched.  Yes, style and presentation matter; but are we really supposed to believe that content doesn't matter at all?  Then why do stories with sex and violence dominate the marketplace - instead of stories about grammar and trigonometric identities?

Even if Willingham were right to focus on flow, it's unclear what educators should do with his information.  Much of the material teachers need to cover just doesn't lend itself to flow.  As he emphasizes later in the book, the only way to understand a subject is to memorize a lot of material.  Memorization just isn't flow-friendly.

Willingham also advises educators to "accept and act on variation in student preparation."  But once you put it that way, it seems like his focus on flow is just reinventing the wheel.  Teachers already know that they have to optimize the difficulty level of their lesson plans.  They want to be easy enough for the weaker students to follow, and hard enough to keep the stronger students awake.  Telling teachers to "seek flow" doesn't seem much more helpful than telling them to "optimize difficulty." 

If there's any lesson to draw, it's that classroom divisions should be based more on ability and less on age.  But strangely, this idea doesn't even make Willingham's list of "Implications for the Classroom."

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Tracy W writes:

From memory, doesn't Dan Willingham mention that when he was a teenager, his teacher managed to make the sex talk incredibly boring? And I have run across quite a few stories that make lavish use of violence and yet are still boring. And I've had boring maths lecturers and stimulating maths lecturers (and I've taken a lot of maths-heavy courses). I don't think that Dan Willingham meant that content was irrelevant to interest, just that it's not the only thing that matters for interest.

On your point that Dan Willingham doesn't argue that a cognitive perspective is particularly valuable, well, what other perspective drives interest in learning? If boredom isn't cognitive, what is it?

ajb writes:

Does Willingham discuss the importance of competition in motivating young boys? The Jesuits seem to have understood this with their pitting groups of boys against each other in class competitions (see James Joyce on the academic "War of the Roses"). The lack of competitions with clear winners AND losers does a lot to turn school into a touchy-feelie anti-flow system that turns off bright boys but rewards diligent girls.

Arnold Kling writes:

I think you sell him a bit short. He says that students don't like school because they do not learn, and they do not learn because they are not taught properly. He does not have miracle cures for teaching properly, but he has some useful suggestions, particularly to treat students as novices rather than as experts. This means building up their knowledge slowly and carefully, through lots of practice.

q writes:

i didn't like school because i wasn't able to choose my peer group and, yes, i suffer fools badly. so for me at least, if i had been able to make more choices to be with the smarter kids, i would have been been much happier.

Miguel Madeira writes:

A better sugestion - students don't like school because thay are forced to attend school (and only by a strange coincidence the subject that they are being thaugth at school at a particular moment is equal to the subect that they want to learn in that articular moment.

A way to test these hypothesis: compare school satisfaction of high-school studentes with college/university students.

Tracy W writes:

Miguel Madeira - I don't think your suggestion is a better one. I recall from school and university that the teachers who taught a subject affected my enjoyment of it (for example in 6th form English my school had this complicated system by which we took modules from one of three teachers, after my first experience with one of the three teachers, my choice of modules was entirely driven by the desire to avoid being taught by her again, unfortunately everyone else in my schedule had the same motive).

MMcLean writes:

I actually read the book. Chapters 1 – 5 were so insightful that I read them several times over. It had not occurred to me that “flow” was a major theme of the book, so I went back through Willingham’s work to locate and study the “flow” idea. I could not find anything about “flow”. Willingham makes sense, Caplan does not. I actually have a background in neurobiology/ neuroscience (graduate degrees and research) and several years ago I switched from research and college teaching to teaching high school (private schools, where there is relative freedom from the educational bureaucracy, ideological battles, etc.). There are differences between college teaching and high school teaching. For example, college teaching is centered on the teacher, not the student, so perhaps Caplan’s point of view is experientially biased, like mine was before I started working with 14 to 18 year olds 8 hours a day. Because of my background, autodidactic study of the neurobiology, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology of human learning is within reach. I even teach a neurobiology/ neuroscience elective in high school. But I have also read several books by “experts” with education degrees (M.Ed. or Ed.D.) that simply get the basic facts wrong. Willingham’s fundamental facts are correct, as best as I can tell. For example, his assertion that the brain is designed for forming habits and not thinking is correct and is a corollary of Hebb’s Rule (neurons that fire together wire together). His rendering on problem solving is right on target (watch a child at play, a grandmother busy with a crossword puzzle, a surgeon repairing a knee, a lawyer figuring out the jury, a 15 year old avoiding homework, and so forth). His description of the breadth-depth issue, chunking, shallow knowledge vs. deep knowledge, and so forth are classic neuroscience. For an educator/ reader to benefit from “Why Don’t Students Like School” will require, in my opinion, a significant amount of prior knowledge about human learning and a lot (several years?) of actual experience working with adolescents or other people on a routine basis. I would suggest that Caplan/others start out by reading “Your Brain: The Missing Manual” by MacDonald as a quick overview and then work his way up to “Human Learning” by Ormrod and finally take some time to understand a little bit about the brain and memory (check out The Teaching Company courses: “Biology and Human Behavior” and “Understanding the Brain”).

mattmc writes:
If there's any lesson to draw, it's that classroom divisions should be based more on ability and less on age. But strangely, this idea doesn't even make Willingham's list of "Implications for the Classroom."

I think this is one of the key recent insights of educational theory that is abhorrent to the over-egalitarians that set much of school policy. Willingham rightly derides the "learning styles" approach, but the basic question of tailoring material very close to the individual's edge of ability is very clear. While Christensen, Horn, and Johnson suggest that can be achieved with technology in "Disrupting Class", they focus too much on learning styles and not enough on ability and effort differences amongst students.

It is a profound loss that so many must be slowed down so that things can move at the pace of slow few. The Japan/Korea solution to this is to just have classes move at the fastest pace possible, and then have students study however much they need to catch up. Germany pursues more differentiated educational paths, according to ability and interest.

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