What can we learn from Daniel Willingham? Part I: Knowledge, Skills and False Dichotomies

As a child, I had a ruler listing all the English monarchs, from William the Conqueror to Queen Elizabeth.  Despite my First in History, I think I’d still struggle to list them all in order.  Discuss.

There are vociferous factions in education, who, at the extreme, are either arguing that students should be memorising my ruler by heart, or, on the other hand, should take no account of it at all.

Daniel Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? is a key part of this debate.  Rather than seek to attempt both a summary and a comment, if you’ve not read Why Don’t Students Like School? I recommend a fine post of what cognitive science offers teachers here by Joe Kirby.

I would merely like to comment on two aspects of this – and take this on to draw some broader conclusions in a second post on the topic.

1) Daniel Willingham is saying important things, not new things.
Willingham introduces a range of principles, summarises the evidence for them and seeks to offer their applications to the teacher.  I would contend that what he says is pretty unarguable and also fairly unremarkable.  Here are three examples of points he makes, and why I find them unexceptional:

Willingham 1

‘Successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory (p.18).’  If students are sounding out letters to formulate unfamiliar words, they are unlikely to grasp the meaning of sentences.

I used to work with a colleague with significant curricular responsibilities, who specialised in creating pages of dense sources in unforgiving language, for our students – many of whose reading ages were far below their chronological ages.  It did not take me very long to establish that asking twelve year olds to read seventeenth century political tracts and pick out reasons for the Civil War (for example) did not work: they could neither keep up with the language, nor the dazzling array of unfamiliar groups (Puritans, Levellers).  Students were so busy trying to understand the language being used and apply recently grasped concepts (if at all) that understanding was impossible.  A teacher swiftly learns to identify the most important elements and highlight them, to modify the language of sources, to pre-teach critical elements.


‘To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (p.54).’  ‘Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.  This sentence may represent the most general and useful idea that cognitive psychology can offer teachers (p.79).’   Willingham offers examples of students focussing on the ‘wrong things’ from lessons.  I suspect every teacher who has asked classes to create a powerpoint has had an experience similar to the one he describes, where students’ perceived success criteria are solely based around the flashiness of the animations.

Full of exciting techniques, I used to put sources up around the classroom and ask students to go and read them, often working in teams and returning to summarise them to their groups.  The technique worked to improve teamwork (sometimes), it was interactive and fun.  It didn’t enhance students historical learning as such.  I more or less stopped doing this a year or two into teaching as I realised:
1) I needed students to pay sustained attention to the sources they read
2) There were too many aspects of the activity which were extraneous to good learning (group work, movement, later synthesis)
3) To succeed I needed to get my students to love history and learning for its own sake – not because it was one of the rare lessons in which they weren’t just sitting down.

‘A good deal of time… is [ought to be] spent setting up the goal, or, to put it another way, persuading students that its important to know [whatever] (p.74).’ Willingham offers parallels with Hollywood here, forcefully enough that watching both Jonathan Creek and Freaky Friday in the last week, I noticed they both conformed to his rule that the real beginning of the plot begins twenty minutes in, with the set up complete.

It took me about three years to get to a lesson structure which looked like this.  I use a hook, a recap on previous lessons and how they link with the topic, learning intentions and their rationale, then the meat of the lesson.  The set up always takes a long time – but I don’t wish to abbreviate it, because it should leave students poised, willing and able to pursue the main ‘answer’ we’re working towards.

Willingham has written a readable, usable, useful guide and I don’t wish to denigrate any of those things.  I wish I’d read it when I entered teaching and I picked up much of it the hard way.  But I hope any teacher could tell you the same after five years teaching.  I hope these points would come up in any observation by a peer, for example.  I’ve heard some effusive things about the book – but it’s not a game-changer, indeed…

2) Daniel Willingham is not saying all he’s made out to be saying.

I thought the book would be game-changing, because Willingham was held up as justifying a fairly radical approach to knowledge and skills – one which I (and others) struggle with.  The evidence he gave was presented to me as justifying a view that we should not be teaching skills – just knowledge.  Hereis an example – a piece which is well-argued throughout and then reaches a conclusion which I believe the evidence available does not justify.

Alphonse

A student identifies the causes of a camel’s death. An exemplar, widely used by history teachers, before moving on to the real issue – the causes of Muslim success in scholarship in the Middle Ages. Acceptable or not?
 

CLAIM: Knowledge should be prioritised over skills

Willingham is very clear that skills such as logical thinking and problem solving are ‘intertwined with knowledge.  It is certainly true that facts without the skills to use them are of little value.  It is equally true that one cannot deploy thinking skills effectively without factual knowledge (pp.46-7).  The consequences for the teacher: ‘Facts must be taught, ideally in the context of skills (p.26).’  To be retained, knowledge must be made meaningful and conceptual (pp.50-51) – rote learning should be reserved for unavoidable, important information.

There are people out there who claim knowledge doesn’t matter, it’s just skills that are important.  There
are also people out there who claim that we should be teaching our children lists of facts.  It’s hard to know which is more depressing – but the bottom line, is Willingham is offering a corrective to those who claim the former, he is not justifying those who claim the latter.

CLAIM: We cannot teach skills, they do not transfer

Willingham offers striking examples of how poorly we approach ‘new’ problems analogous to ones we have already solved.  He then goes on to emphasise that ‘we’re always transferring knowledge of facts and problem solutions (p.102),’ moreover that this transfer is desirable, as he asks ‘what can we do to increase these odds (p.120)?’  He goes further, he argues that teachers should ‘make deep knowledge your goal, spoken and unspoken (p.210),’ (where deep knowledge is an ability to identify the underlying structures of problems and solve them accordingly).

CLAIM: We should be drilling our students

Willingham makes an excellent case for the importance of practice.  He is equally pragmatic, while enabling us to work towards mastery: ‘The downside of this sort of practice is probably obvious: It is pretty boring (p.124)’ if we’re not improving.  He points out that we can space out the practice and can always ‘fold practice into more advanced skills (p.125).’

I would like to apologise to Daniel Willingham as I imagined him.  I had always thought there was more of a rationale for a much higher factual content and a reduction in the teaching of concepts and skills.  As I mentioned above, I believe he is offering a useful corrective to anyone who believes students should be learning skills alone, without any knowledge.  He is offering a useful reminder of the importance of a strong knowledge-base on which to carry out analysis, that this is a prerequisite for successful analysis.  These are stepping stones on a path to helping our students become experts in their fields.  Not all of my students will choose to be experts in History – which is fine.  However, I will be doing them a disservice if I fail to provide them with both the knowledge and the conceptual tools with which to proceed down that path (knowledge and skills which they may well learn to apply outside History – if we as teachers show them how to do so).

Nothing Willingham wrote in this book makes me feel the need to change my teaching practice.  What he has done is offered a good reminder of some of the many things I should be doing – a point I’ll come back to in my next post.

I’ll leave this with one of my favourite sentences and ideas; Fiona Vaz (quoting someone from KIPP):

When we are faced with a choice between two important things, we should do both.

 
[Originally posted 6th April, 2013]

Comments

04/08/2013 1:34am
 

Thanks very much for this post. Let me emphasize two things
1) to be fair to my critics, I see where they are coming from–I do talk about knowledge more than skills. I do so not because I think knowledge is more important, but because I virtually never run into someone who thinks that it’s a good idea to memorize a list of facts. . .but I frequently run into people who think that one can learn skills absent factual knowledge. I’ve often said that if I thought beliefs about knowledge/skills were the opposite of what they seem to be, I’d be carping about the need for cognitive skill.
2) you’re absolutely right that what I’m saying is not new. It’s the stuff I was teaching to undergraduates in my Introduction to Cognition course for years, and I was quite surprised that this was not old stuff to every teacher. I later found that it *was* old stuff to experienced teachers–but novices often had not learned it during their training.

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