Over the course of the next decade Professor Daniel T. Willingham will become one of the most influential people you’ve never heard of. Yet his ideas are going to be – indeed already are – foundational in the education of a generation of British children.
Currently known only to a gradually increasing number of teachers and a select coterie of education academics, Willingham is a Harvard-educated cognitive psychologist and a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. His work now lies at the heart of teacher training programmes throughout the UK, and his seminal book, Why don’t students like school? – first published in 2009 – is widely acknowledged as a must-read for all teachers. His ideas started to come to real prominence in this country during the Gove education reforms at the start of the last decade, and they have won growing numbers of adherents in the teaching profession since then. As teaching pays ever more attention to neuroscience and its implications for the classroom, Willingham’s ideas – perhaps more than any other person’s – are going to underpin the education of millions of children over the next few years, as a new cohort of teachers are themselves taught to teach the Willingham way.
And what a way it is. His ultimate answer to that question of why children don’t like school comes down to schools being places where children are required to think, and that thinking is something that humans just aren’t very good at. Willingham argues that the human brain is, in his own words, ‘not designed for thinking’, which is ‘slow, effortful and unreliable’. The perhaps unsurprising result of this is that both children and adults will avoid thinking if they possibly can, or at least ‘unless the cognitive conditions are right’. A slightly more encouraging corollary of this, however, is that when those conditions are right, people do actually quite enjoy mental work, so long as they can be successful at it. The upshot of all this for the teacher is that their role is to provide those optimal ‘cognitive conditions’ for their pupils.
Willingham also sets great store by the distinction between long-term memory and working memory. The former is the ‘vast storehouse in which you maintain your factual knowledge of the world’ – all the stuff you know, but don’t have to actively think about to know that you know – while the latter holds onto whatever you are actively thinking about and is the part of your mind where you are aware of what’s going on around you. Thinking then takes place when you combine information from both long-term and working memory in new ways. Given there’s only so much that your working memory can cope with at any one moment, the more knowledge you can store in your long-term memory, the faster and more productive your thinking will be. Again, the teacher’s job becomes one of facilitating this process of first implanting and then retaining knowledge in the long-term memory, before finally helping to retrieve and use it when required. Gulp.
Thankfully Willingham doesn’t leave the teacher floundering there, but does consider how these aims might be achieved and what this means for the actual teaching of actual children – and this is where his ideas are really starting to have a tangible difference in British schools right now. The most notable implication of his work is that in order to get knowledge safely stored in the long-term memory, it must be explicitly taught: it cannot just be absorbed osmotically by the teaching of abstract ‘skills’. Children need to be able to think analytically, yes, but a solid basis of knowledge is an absolute prerequisite for such thinking to be able to take place effectively. To teach ‘analytical thinking’ in isolation is meaningless.
To this end, Willingham offers several key solutions, but my favourite – and the one for which Willingham is best known – is the idea that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. In other words, we remember what we actively think about, which makes complete sense (when you think about it…). The best way of trying to get pupils to commit something to long-term memory is to get them to really think about it. And how to do that? Willingham isn’t prescriptive, and, to a large extent, this is where the skill of the teacher comes in. How do I get my students to think about what I want them to think about? Here lies part of the challenge and joy of teaching.
This is Willingham in a nutshell, and his is a creed being absorbed by teachers around the country – it has doubtless already come to a school near you. It’s fascinating and thought-provoking and kindles in many new teachers a casual interest in neuroscience and cognitive psychology that they never knew they had. This is modern teaching, and as Covid has thrust education into an unprecedented spotlight, it’s time for the rest of society to understand what 21st century teaching looks like too.