UVA Prof. Dan Willingham on Learning Science & K-12 Schooling

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This week on The Learning Curve, Cara and Gerard speak with University of Virginia Professor Dan Willingham about cognitive psychology and K-12 education. Dr. Willingham discusses the psychology of learning and the research that shaped his thinking and writing, including his advocacy of using scientific knowledge in classroom teaching and education policy and his critique of the “learning styles theory” of education. They explore what elements appear to be missing from American K-12 schooling and schools of education; his support of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Core Knowledge curricular work; and what must be done to improve students’ enjoyment of and performance in primary and secondary education.
Stories of the Week:
Cara discussed a story in Chalkbeat New York reporting that at the end of last school year, just 36 percent of children entitled to “bilingual special education services received the correct amount of instruction from a certified bilingual teacher and in a classroom with the proper ratio of students and staff.” Gerard mentioned a story in the Jewish Journal detailing a lawsuit brought by parents of students with special needs as well as two Los Angeles Jewish schools, who are suing the California Department of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District over being excluded from special education funding. Plaintiffs maintain their case is similar to last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Carson v. Makin, regarding school choice and religious liberty.


Daniel Willingham received his PhD from Harvard University in cognitive psychology and is now a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is the author of several books, including, most recently, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How to Make it Easy. His writing on education has appeared in 19 languages.

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[00:00:00] Cara Candal: Listeners, welcome to the Learning Curve. This is Cara Candal. I’m here with my buddy Gerard Robinson and Gerard, I feel like it has been forever since we’ve been together. How you doing?

[00:00:38] Gerard Robinson: I’m doing well from beautiful Charlottesville, Virginia, but a lot has happened in our city. A lot of people are sad because the men’s basketball team got knocked out of the first round by a lower seed. So there were a lot of tears on that end. But at the same time, there’s also something to cheer about. Our women’s swim and dive team won their third consecutive NCAA championship.

Cara: Yay, women!

Gerard: And I had a chance to meet fact the team ;ast year at an event at the president’s home where they had two of their national championships, and now they can add a third to it. So at a time when we spend a lot of our time focused on college men’s sports, we have champions, we have another tournament taking place with women, but we tend to forget that. And since we are in Women’s history month, but even independent of that uh, it’s a time to celebrate the women here at UVA. So congratulations to the dive and swim team.

[00:01:33] Cara: Yes. Congratulations. And listeners, I have to say, you do not have to live in a home with three, no four women, right? You have three daughters—three daughters. Let’s not forget your lovely wife, to be as enlightened as Gerard Robinson and to always, not only look on the bright side, but not forget about the girls. Thank you so much for that. That’s amazing. And congrats to the Women’s Swim and Dive team. That’s man, swimmers. Divers are strong. Yes. I mean, that, those are sports that are just, I can’t swim to, I, I’m, I don’t know if I’ve ever shared this with you, Gerard, but I, basically grew up on Lake Michigan, yet I am very afraid of water.

[00:02:13] Gerard: I did not know that.

Cara: Yeah, none of it makes any sense. It takes a lot to get me on a boat and it just, it’s not even worth it. But even just like going in the water is kind of a thing, but at pool, not so much. But I am just always amazed. My best friend in high school growing up was a swimmer and I would go to those meets and just watch her, like cut through the water like her arms were butter knives or something. It’s amazing. Just amazing. So, strength. I don’t have anything so enlightened or lovely to talk about. I’ve got an article, Gerard, that’s bringing me back though, and making me both parts depressed, that things haven’t changed and making me think about a prior time in my life. So, I don’t know. I know you know that I lived in Chicago for a long time and graduate school at the wonderful University of Chicago, where I studied anthropology and anybody who listens to the show can figure out how that worked out for me because I am not in fact an anthropologist. But when I was there, Gerard, I spent time well it started out I spent time volunteering in a shelter for women and children.

[00:03:15] And I was there very specifically because I had English language teaching experience. So, I was there as an ESL tutor in Chicago, specifically in the shelter, and at the time as I think happens a lot of times when you work sort of with organizations that like provide some sort of connection to kids and often to schools, I would get a lot of questions from parents, Gerard, around what’s going on with my kid in school. We’ve come here from many times. It was a Latin American country for folks that I was working with. And we’ve come here and, I came here in part for strong education for my children and I just don’t even understand what’s going on with the schools. My kids aren’t being taught to speak English. They’re not doing math. Please, please, you know, help, help, help. And, and I wasn’t the only one folks were asking for help. It was anybody who would listen, please, can you help? And at the time, Gerard, I was able, I don’t even remember how, but through some turn of events and working with another organization with schools, I was able to go into Chicago public schools and meet with the parent that I was helping and meet with some teachers and an administrator in one of the schools.

[00:04:19] I won’t name what it was, but what I found out, which would not surprise me now, but surprised me at the time was that some of the children I was working with who had both, they were, you know, not native speakers, so they had English as a second language needs, and one of them at least had definitely had special education needs and these children had been—there’s no other way to put it.

[00:04:39] it—they had been dumped into a classroom with about 50 other kids. And there was no, from what I could see as a former teacher, no teaching or learning going on. And in part because you had like one adult for all of these children, and the children spanned all of these different age groups and the district did not know what to do. And so, like, you had one teacher at the front of the room basically putting worksheets in front of kids and trying to control the chaos that ensues when any group of 50 children are together. And this, Gerard, was not, I’m not gonna say it was a turning point for me. It’s not the thing that made me want to go into education for the long haul, but it’s certainly infuriated me on many levels and made me like, revisit like what is it that I want to do? And I’ve always had an interest in education policy, and this is—working with the kids really changed my life in many ways. So, cut to today. I’m just going to read you the first lines of an article in Chalk Beat this week, and here’s the first line:

[00:05:39] “Nearly two thirds of New York City students who are entitled to bilingual special education services are not receiving all of their mandated support according to new figures. Released by the city’s education department. I mean, this is, let me just go on for one second. At the end of last school year, just 36 percent of children who were assigned to bilingual special education services received the correct amount of instruction from a certified bilingual teacher and in a classroom with the proper ratio of students and staff.” So, this brought me back, Gerard, just reading those two lines and this, excellent article goes on to highlight a lot more, but to thinking not only about, you know, we talk a lot about ESL students or English language learners, ELLs. We talk a lot about special education students.

[00:06:27] We talk about teacher shortages in both of those areas, and we rarely— and when I say we, I guess I’m talking about the grand we here—there are certainly specialized people who work at the intersection of special education and English language learner services. But we often in the grander policy conversations forget about the fact that there’s so many children out there who need a wide variety of different services and can fall under many different air quote labels, so to speak.

[00:06:55] And, I’m not for one to eschew the idea of labels completely because I think it’s important to be able to categorize kids for the purposes of understanding to the point of this article, if they are indeed getting the kinds of services they need. But what this article really hits home, and I don’t think New York City is some sort of outlier or anomaly, is that in fact not only now, when I think it’s, I think arguably things are worse due to the pandemic, and I think that teacher shortages have always been real, but they’re more profound now, especially in certain fields. This is a problem that’s been around for a very long time, and when we ask the question of what kinds of services do students need? Well, students need the services that are tailored to their individual needs. And in this case, for this specific article, students with English language learner needs and special education needs need to have all of those needs met. Why is this not happening? Well, teacher shortages, as I’ve mentioned, has been cited as one.

[00:07:52] And just a shortage of—so, in New York City, they’re saying it’s bilingual teachers in certain states, you know, we can prescribe whether or not students receive services in what we call sheltered structured English immersion or sheltered English immersion or whether those services are actually bilingual. Either way, it’s hard to find ESL teachers and it is very hard to find bilingual education teachers. And what happens when students aren’t receiving the language services they need? Well, it’s often a prerequisite to other means of learning. They’re not receiving the kinds of math support they need, especially, and throw any sort of learning difference learning disability or even like remediation.

[00:08:30] The need to catch up just because of where you came from prior in your education is often too often. Not there for students. So, the good news here is that New York City is tracking this stuff. The bad news as this article highlights is that another reason students and families aren’t getting the services they need is because not every school in New York is indeed equipped to give them these services.

[00:08:53] So it sounds like depending on who you are, you might be told as a parent, we can get your child what their due under their IEP as a special education student and we can do it in bilingual education, but only if you go to this school, which might be across, who knows, the city.

[00:09:08] So not all schools are equipped. The article, I have to say, Gerard, and I’m, this is not a fault of it, I think that it wasn’t the job of the article ,is short on solutions and it would seem that New York City and many other. Of the many, many, not just cities, but towns and places that are dealing with these issues are also pretty short on solutions.

[00:09:28] Uh, Teacher shortage and addressing building teacher pipelines has to be one. But to my mind, Gerard, I will just leave you with this one thought: I was left thinking, are we really so unable to innovate here? Right? So, a place like New York, a place like where I live in the Boston area, we’re not known for centering parents and putting power in the hands of parents and giving them things like micro grants, et cetera.

[00:09:53] But I was just thinking, for real? If you can’t hire a physical, bilingual, special education teacher in this child’s school, are there not the tip of the iceberg online services that can be leveraged? Are there not grants, small grants that we could give parents so that they indeed could access the services that they need somewhere else in the city if the schools don’t have the contract to do it? There just seems to be this grand lack of thinking outside of the box in situations like these. And I will note that it is a large percentage and an increasingly large percentage of students in the City of New York who identify as English language learners with special educational needs. So that’s 3,100 students last year alone in New York City that did not receive their correct classroom placements. And in part, sometimes it’s because these children, these students might not have clear IEPs, which are legal binding documents all the time for various reasons, because as you know, my friend, it’s very hard for parents to navigate those systems. Now I’m spinning here because this article has me a little upset, so I’m going to throw it to you now to talk a little bit about from your commissioner’s perspective and your parent’s perspective. What do we even think? How do we begin to think about this issue of giving students with multiple needs, the services that they deserve?

Gerard: The easy answer is, they should have it today. The hard part is how do we deliver it? The teacher shortage part is real. I think everything you mentioned was real, short on solutions. I don’t have another solution to offer. It’s not as if we don’t have a law. Often we’ll say, let’s just create a law and then they’ll do it. We already have a law. Some school systems, in fact, have been sued over things like this and are still moving forward.

[00:11:43] Cara: New York City has been sued. Yes.

[00:11:46] Gerard: Yeah, and in fact, your story is similar to mine, so I’m wondering if I can weigh into that because I go for it. We share some similar, so my story is from. The other large American school system in this LA Unified school system. And let me say, before I began, I want to give my condolences to residents in Los Angeles who either lost family members, pets, homes or others, other things as a result of the flooding in that city. Also, LA teachers are now on a strike, which could last at least three days. So, there’s a lot going on. Well, on top of that, there are three families in Los Angeles coupled with families from two Los Angeles Jewish schools that serve members of the Orthodox community who are suing the California Department of Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District over being excluded from special education funding. So, this lawsuit was filed March 13 and they noted that the federal law, we know as Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides funding for special education and other disability services to states. But guess what? California only provides such funding to secular private schools, not religious schools.

[00:12:58] So for our listeners, IDEA from 1975 to 1990 was known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. 1990, we switched to IDEA. And just so you know, this law makes really clear that if you are a student with a disability, you are eligible for free, appropriate public education throughout schools of the nation to ensure that your children receive the services. IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special ed, and related services to more than 7.5 million students, eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. So, this is something that we fund regularly and it’s going to California. California said, well, guess what? We’re funding students who have special needs if they’re in a private secular school. And so according to the complaint, it says, since parents often cannot afford to pay for disability services themselves, California forces them to choose between accessing those services and giving their children a Jewish education. And then it moves on from there. It’s worth noting that in the article that you’ll see online that they said the people who were representing the family said June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down a similar program in Maine Carson v. Makin. And for those of you who are listening, we actually had lead plaintiff Carson and his IJ attorney, Arif Panju, on our show, June 29, 2022, if you want go back and listen to that.

[00:14:32] But they’re basically saying the court has ruled on this. And so you can’t say religious schools shouldn’t be included. Well, to go a step further Raba, who was the Vice President and senior council at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the plaintiffs. He said, quote, it takes a special kind of chutzpah to deny Jewish kids with disabilities equal access to special education benefits. California politicians can end this unlawful discrimination the easy way or the hard way. Either they can change the law that is hurting children with disabilities, or they can shamefully fight in court for the right to discriminate. And it moves on from there. And so you’ve got families coming together and saying, we’re going to do this. When the department of Education and the LA Unified School District Department, when someone reached out to them for comment, both said it’s too early uh, in the process to comment.

[00:15:24] So they won’t. But here’s a situation in the second-largest school system in the country where families have children with special needs, families who should be covered by the law. But California as a state said, “Hey, as long as they go to a private secular school, not a religious school, it’s okay.” So, this is going back to many conversations we’ve had on this show about the Blaine amendment.

[00:15:49] And so, if 2021 was the year of school choice and it looks like 2023 will be the year for education savings accounts, maybe this case, maybe what’s going on in New York will make 2023 the year to bury Blaine. Religious schools right now receive public money through Title I and Title II. They’ve been doing that for decades, so we can’t say public money hasn’t gone to religious schools, but here’s one situation where they decide to discriminate against those families. I would follow this with great interest, not only because it’s my former city, but what’s going to happen in a place like California, the largest state, the state with the most students, other states are goin to look at it.

[00:16:33] I’m not familiar with the funding formula in Massachusetts where you are. But this is interesting, and I think it gets back to where are the ideas? You can’t say you don’t have money, you can’t say you don’t have support. You can’t say you’re not funding private schools. You’re just simply saying that can’t be religious schools. There we are, my friend.

Cara: I mean, it, feels like a no-brainer given where we know not only well, they’re two separate things where we know the Supreme Court has gone on these issues, as you rightly point out, but also, like, not aside, it’s where the culture’s going. Do you know what I’m saying to say to your point that somehow when it comes to K-12 religious schools should be exempted from this kind of, it’s just, it no longer makes sense in an era where education is increasingly becoming unbundled because parents will have it no other way. And you’re right, California’s a big old state. So, if change can happen there, it can happen anywhere. It’s an interesting story, Gerard. Maybe we can have somebody on as a guest to talk about it. So, we’ll get the producers on that.

Gerard: Have we had anybody from the Becket Fund?

Cara: Ooh. I think we have back in the day. We need to revisit that. Okay. Okay. We going to go back to like season one and think about that. Yeah. But be before we hop on that. So, anybody from the Becket Fund, if you’re listening, before we hop on that, we do actually have a wonderful guest to bring in right from your neck of the woods, Gerard. We’re going to be speaking to Dan Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. So we’ll be right back after this brief musical interlude.

[00:19:02] Welcome back Learning Curve listeners. Today we are with Daniel Willingham. He is professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. I’m fascinated already this I’m thinking about memory a lot as I get older. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He writes the Ask the Cognitive Scientist column for American Educator Magazine and is the author of several books, including most recently, Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning Is Hard and How to Make It Easy. I wish I would’ve had that advice in seventh grade.

[00:19:43] His writing on education has appeared in 19 languages. That is very, very cool. Professor Willingham, welcome to the show. And a question for you. Have you ever read one of your own books in another language?


Dan Willingham: No, I have not. I’m afraid that my foreign language skills range from utter incompetence to halting despair. So . Yeah. The short, the short answer is no. I, I have not.

Cara: Well, that’s, but I’m sure you have a very good understanding of how the brain works around these things, so, yeah. Yeah. We’re excited to jump in. I mean, I know I. Spend working in education policy, I’ve certainly spent a lot of time learning and thinking and, trying to help others understand what we know about how the brain works with regard to, for example, learning how to read. But you’ve written just a variety of books, all of them widely respected on many aspects of the psychology of learning. Talk to us first about how you came to this topic. How did it first become of interest to you?


Dan Willingham: Curiously, I applied to graduate school in psychology without a very clear idea of what I wanted to study and really without much commitment to staying in graduate school, which is just exceptionally stupid and not anything [that I would ever recommend anyone do. I kind of had a well, we’ll see how this goes attitude, and it’s really miraculous that I was, I of course did not say this, but it, probably, oozed out of my application because I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have any to advise me really. But once I got to graduate school, I, quickly found myself fascinated. And my advisor also somewhat unusual, had two quite different research interests. One that was the subject of her graduate study, which was visual attention and then the other, the subject that she studied in her post-doctoral fellowship, which was learning and memory and the brain basis of learning and memory.

[00:21:42] And it was the latter that I got interested in. So that was Mary Jo Nissen and I studied with her for a couple of years and then for reasons completely unrelated to her, the program ended up transferring and then went to work with Bill Estes, who was not remotely interested in the topics I was interested in, and once again, I have to wonder why in the world I was admitted to work with him. But for whatever reason I was and was a little bit the outcast of the laboratory because my, interest didn’t align with anyone else’s. But there were lots of wonderful people at Harvard. To talk to Steve Koslin was a big influence on me there. And that was how I got interested in learning. I really just sort of stumbled onto it and so continued, and that was, I had absolutely no interest in education at that time beyond sort of trying to teach my own courses competently. As I’m, fond of quoting the sort of old joke about PhDs. When you get a PhD, your parents tell their friends: “My son is now a doctor, but he is not the type of doctor who helps anyone.” And I — I sort of went one better on that. I was a learning scientist who couldn’t tell you how to learn because the work I was doing was very technical and not, directly applicable at.

[00:22:57]Cara: I can absolutely relate to that joke as a person with a doctorate, granted an education doctorate, but who is married to, you know, a doctor that helps people as one would say

Dan Willingham: A real doctor!

[00:23:08] Cara: Interesting. Yes. A, a real doctor. Yet I still get upset when people address invitations to Doctor and Mrs. Candal. So I want to ask you in preparing to talk to you, I was thinking a lot about. just growing up in, as a child of the eighties and remembering two things, standing out very clearly, my mother being upset with how my school did or did not teach me how to read. And the other thing was my mother being very upset at a teacher telling me, even though I think I had a pretty okay education that I just wasn’t a math person and I don’t know if that has anything to do with learning styles theory, but that’s something that you have critiqued. Can you talk a little bit about this debate over learning styles and how it’s impacted us in terms of just K-12 education and how we make policy?

Dan Willingham: Sure. I mean, I’m still like, catching my breath from your teacher telling you that you’re not a math person. That’s, that’s really horrible. That yes, a teacher would tell, that would tell any child, you know, that this is sort of who you are. You’re just no good at this. I’m a very big believer in telling children the truth, and especially when something is hard for them, because pretending it’s not hard for them, you can’t fool them. All that does is make plain to the child that you’re ready to lie. If there’s an uncomfortable truth. And if the, you know, if the child’s sees like, look, all of us damn Blue Birds can’t read, and the red birds are really good at reading. Like, why can’t we just all acknowledge that that’s the fact? So, I think it’s important to, be honest with children, but there are ways of framing it that  don’t have that sort of essentialist component to it of this is who you are because it so obviously implies this is who you will forever be. Where, you know, I think the proper way to say it is there are different things that are hard for different people, and everybody has some things that are easy and some things that are hard for them and for you it’s math. And so like, let’s talk about how we can make math easier for you and how you can still enjoy math even though it may be a little more challenging for you than for others. All of this has nothing to do with learning styles, by the way. So, learning styles is a different idea. What, your teacher was talking about was ability, which is easily confused with style.

[00:25:25] Style is a theory that you have a particular way that you prefer to do things and things will generally go better if you’re able to do them the way you prefer, but that doesn’t come down to ability. So, we’re used to thinking about this idea when we think about athletics. So, you could have two basketball players who were both very, very good players. They were equal in ability, but one’s a very conservative player, doesn’t like to take shots unnecessarily, where the other’s a big risk taker. And so that, what we would mean by style. So common learning styles, theories, sound like abilities, theories. So, like visual learner versus auditory learner. So this is not, it’s supposed to mean, not that you are good at learning things visually, but rather you prefer to do them that way. Just like the conservative versus risk-taking basketball player. So, these ideas have been around since the fifties and there’s never been really adequate scientific evidence to conclude that they’re well supported at all.

[00:26:29] But the idea’s absolutely taken over the public imagination and not just in the U.S. Everywhere surveys have been done that I’ve seen, so that would include Central America, South America, Western Europe, and the U.S. and Canada something like 90% of adults think that there is scientific evidence that learning styles theory is accurate.

[00:26:53] Most of them, I suspect, don’t really know what it means. Now to me, the most interesting thing about—oh, and, and I should say the fewer educators think that learning styles theory is demonstrated, but it’s still a lot. It’s like 70% or something in the most recent data that I saw in the U.S.—and, more alarming, there was an article in Education Next a couple of years ago showing like 40 something of the 50 states licensure examinations for teachers referenced learning styles. That’s the part I find really appalling, and that’s what I think is in a way most instructive about education practice and policy.

Circling back to where you started your question, I don’t think that learning styles really has that big an impact on most teachers’ practice. I don’t know of any evidence that teachers are really that worried about students’ learning styles. I think a lot of them think they should be, but implementing that in practice is really, really hard.

[00:27:50] But to me, the thing that’s most instructive about learning styles is it speaks to how we use science in education in this country. And in a word that’s poorly, this is an example of just, there are lots of ways you can go wrong in using science when you start with solid science and then, you know, try and implement it in classrooms and that’s hard to do and you can make mistakes and so on. In the case of learning styles, we’re embracing science in the absence of scientific evidence, or better put, embracing what we think is science in the absence of scientific evidence and the fact that people aren’t better informed is disappointing.

[00:28:31] Cara: Yeah, it’s really, it’s striking that, I mean, it, I think sometimes lately it feels like we’re in a more anti-science moment, than ever. But for a long time in education policy, we have ignored available research and science that could help kids succeed.

Dan Willingham: In reading science seems to be having its day. In terms of people paying more attention to what scientists have long said was a settled matter regarding the usefulness of phonics instruction. And now there’s the well backed scientific proof that background knowledge is essential for reading comprehension. That idea seems to be getting greater traction than it has.

[00:29:14] Cara: Yeah. No, it’s fascinating work. I think that wow, in another life I would love, I would love a job like yours. I want to talk for a minute about, you know, the, debates about the value of testing aside, tests like NAEP and even international exams, state exams too, can tell us a lot about whether or not kids are learning to a basic level, and that might be the one very useful function of testing as we know it. What NAEP especially has shown us, and yes, the last couple years in the wake of a pandemic, were certainly disappointing, as we all expected, but it’s not as though we’ve had wonderful news from tests like NAEP over time. Can you talk a little bit about what is it that we’re missing? So you’ve already noted that we tend to just sort of ignore science when it’s available in terms of how we teach students, but does this extend as well to how we’re training teachers and um, can you talk a little bit about like, where the problem lies? What is it that we could be doing a better job of to help students at least achieve basic proficiency.

Dan Willingham: It sounds like you’re asking how can we make schools better? , just now. I mean, that’s, that’s a horrible question. So, like, can I just say like, what, what’s the title of the movie? Everything Everywhere, All at Once? Can we? That’s what we’re like, that’s what needs to change. It is hard to point to any part of the system at the moment, we are like, that part is working brilliantly. Like whatever you do that can’t be improved, so, don’t touch it. Teacher education needs to improve. I think that’s very clear. Teacher licensing needs to improve. Curriculum is a huge problem in my view, and I think one that’s going to be very difficult to tackle because of the local control issue.

[00:31:02] So yeah, I mean, I think there are just all of the parts you can point to sort of some pretty significant aspects of it that you’d like to see changed and there’s, you know, reasonably good data that that could have a real impact. My most recent book was about the fact that we, increasingly, as children get older, we increasingly expect them to regulate their own learning, to be responsible for their own learning and survey show almost no one is teaching the children how to do that. It’s wild when you think about it. Like, what would the effect size be? We’re, you know, we’re here talking about like, should we raise teacher pay? Should we reduce class sizes? Should we lengthen the school year? All of the sort of most expensive interventions you can imagine with sort of uncertain consequences.

[00:31:51] And we’re debating them because we’re so desperate what to do. And it’s like, well, we asked children to teach themselves. Maybe we should teach them how to teach themselves, which would be damn near free. And like, why don’t we just try that? So, yeah, I mean, the question of like, why are things going so badly, it’s, again, to me it’s like there are a lot of people, a lot of individuals in the system working very, very hard and a lot of smart people. But the system as a whole, it’s hard to find pieces of it that you wouldn’t have some ideas about how it could be improved.

Gerard: So, as a follow up to what you just said about your recent book, Outsmart Your Brain, can you provide our listeners with real world practices and some of the most current research on how to train students’ brains for better learning, and also talk about some of the main findings and recommendations from Outsmart Your Brain.

[00:32:43] Dan Willingham: Sure. Well, as you would imagine, like, my first response is, well, how long do you have? Like, you know, I’m happy to talk about, it’s a book and, you know, there’s plenty to say, but let me, start abstractly and then I’ll offer some concrete devices. You suggest the reason that’s called Outsmart Your Brain is the theme is that when students are left to their own devices to figure out how to regulate their own learning. Research shows that they tend to, even though they’re no one’s telling them what to do, they tend to gravitate towards the same set of strategies.

[00:33:15] And these strategies they like are ones that feel easy to do, but also feel in the moment like they’re working. So, the analogy I draw in the book is you suppose wants to be able to do a lot of pushups but they’re not happy with their progress. So, you go to watch ’em train and you find them doing pushups on their knees and you say, why? If you want to do a lot of pushups, why are you doing them on your knees? Like you should be doing regular pushups. Or even better, you should be doing like really hard pushups, like the ones where you launch yourself off the floor and clap. And your friend says, yeah, you know, a couple of people said that and I tried it, but I can hardly do any of those. And when I do ’em on my knees, I can do lots of pushups really fast. So, it’s students when they’re studying, tend to do the mental equivalent of pushups on their knees. They do things that feel in the moment like they’re working but also feel easy. And what they’re forgetting is that you need the challenge to get long-term results. So, for example when students are trying to commit things to memory, the most common strategy they use is reading over the textbook or reading over their notes. But of course we know that you can read something and basically your eyes are just skittering across the page. You’re not really think we’ve all, quote unquote read something and find yourself at the bottom of the page and realize you were thinking about lunch the whole time. So, reading over something doesn’t guarantee you’re actually going to be thinking deeply about it, which is what’s going to help your memory.

[00:34:47] But even worse, reading over does increase familiarity. And when something feels very familiar, those repeated readings make the content you’re reading seem not just familiar. It seems obvious to you. But that familiarity, even though it is a type of memory, it’s not the type of memory that can support you actually explaining something, which is what you need to, do well on a test, obviously.

[00:35:16] So this is an example of a bad study habit not only leads you to struggle to remember something, but then even worse, it leads you to think that you’ve committed something to memory. So, there are lots of examples of that. Similar to that, that one’s just about committing things to memory and then also judging whether or not you’ve learned something.

[00:35:38] I mean, there are problems in student note taking student planning. Basically, very few of them plan at all. And instead, their method of planning is they work on whatever is due next. So, they’re sort of constantly in crisis management mode they are subject to the planning fallacy as all of us are.

[00:35:58] The planning fallacy being, we consistently underestimate how long it will take to do things. So, if you’re always working on what’s next you’re likely to put off something that’s not due for a few days, and then you try and do it the last night and then it takes longer than you thought it was going to, and you do a rush job, or you maybe don’t even finish it. So, we need to teach students alternative planning strategies as well. There’s a couple of examples for you.

[00:36:24] Gerard: And although you can’t hear it because she’s on mute, Cara’s clapping right now because we are co-authoring a policy brief together, and I’ve been the hold up on my hand for lack of time. So, just so you…

[00:36:38] Cara: I just not gonna say it, Gerard.

[00:36:40] Dan Willingham: I really didn’t, I did not mean to get in the midst of family matters here. I apologize.

[00:36:47] Gerard: Well, as a scholar, you know, this happens all the time. You’re in the middle whether you want to be or not.

Dan Willingham: So that’s fair.

Gerard: Thanks for putting me out there. So, you know, let’s stick with the, with the student piece and the idea of thinking. So in an Education Week article that you wrote, you said quote, research shows that our choices are influenced by whether our environment makes something easy or difficult far more than we. The right surroundings are more powerful than willpower alone in the quote. Unpack that for us.

[00:37:17] Dan Willingham: Yeah. This is in one sense not surprising because when I give you a few examples I think you and your listeners will say like, yes, of course, that seems obvious. But at the same time, we, we are big believers in willpower. I think in our culture and American culture in particular, we admire people who are strong and steadfast and, you know, stick to their goals even if the environment is against them. But what the data indicate is if you really want to get something done, the best thing to do is to adjust your environment to make it easier. So, for example everybody knows that grocery stores sell their shelf space.

[00:37:58] Vendors pay grocery stores for prime shelf space. And the shelf space that goes for the most money is the shelf space at eye level. When you first hear this, it sounds almost unbelievable. It’s like, so when I’m at the bread aisle, like I’m too lazy to look down? Which seems unbelievable, but that’s essentially it. You’re more likely to pick something that is right in front of you than to really explore the space when you’re making that decision. Another great study came out of University of Pennsylvania, sort of making a similar point. The researchers got permission from a restaurant to tinker with their salad bar, and they experimented with putting all of the healthy stuff at the front of the salad bar.

[00:38:45] So you know, all the broccoli and tomatoes, all the healthy vegetables, and then all the really yummy stuff. It isn’t so good for you, the ranch dressing and the bacon bits and the croutons, they put those in the back row and what they found was that consumption of vegetables increased, I think it was 27% was the figure.

[00:39:04] So this is a matter of moving things about 12 inches, and you get this substantial difference in uptake. And I’ll just give one more example. Research from—this is a survey coming out of Pew—showed that the amount of time that teenagers spent listening to music increased about 50% between 2004 and 2009.

[00:39:32] And what happened in the interim was that MP3 players became inexpensive enough that middle-class parents were ready to buy them for their teenage children. So, once you’ve got music in your pocket all the time, making the choice to listen to music obviously becomes much easier, and you get this enormous increase in music consumption.

[00:39:56] So, all of this is to say that this is why I say we’re, we’re much more influenced by our environment than we realize. This is something that when I talk about with parents all the time when parents say, oh, you know, I wish my child read more. And, My child has access to books and my response is always, well, there’s access, and then there’s sort of like, where you’re, virtually tripping over books. Like any moment that the child is bored, there’s a book insight that’s sort of what your goal is. And I think that this could play a role, especially in family life. I mean in, in most school settings, most activities are already fairly directed for children. You could probably find, you know, if you did some observations, you could probably find some ways to implement this around the edges.

[00:40:42] But I think it’s especially important in the home for things like reading and for things like reduced access to gaming and other activities that parents are OK with—surveys show that parents are okay with that in limited amounts, but then parents also feel like my child’s doing more of this than I wish they did.

[00:40:59] [00:41:00] Gerard: Excellent examples. Let’s end on my end with this question. So you’re in Charlottesville. I’m in Charlottesville. Another person who calls Charlottesville home is E.D. Hirsch Jr. He’s been on the show before. Would you share with our listeners why you find his work about K-12 education compelling? It’s grounding in cognitive psychology and why it hasn’t been possibly embraced by more people within the education establishment?

[00:41:28] Dan Willingham: I find his work on K-12 education compelling because I think he really was ahead of his time. And I think in Cultural Literacy, chapter two of  Cultural Literacy is the cognitive psychology part.

[00:41:44] Where he’s just talking about reading comprehension and how background knowledge contributes to reading comprehension. And I think, the cognitive experiments were there, but I think he was really ahead of his time in terms of putting that together and seeing how profound the impact of background knowledge was on comprehension.

[00:42:10] The extent to which it’s not, you know, the, the common thing you hear from people is like, yes, yes, of course knowledge is important. Knowledge is good. you need something to think about, and Don was really the first one to say, no, it’s more than that. Like, you’re, you’re just not going to understand what’s going on. You’re going to quit reading very quickly if you don’t have the right background knowledge because writers assume, inevitably assume knowledge on the part of their audience. And if you lack that knowledge, you’re not going to be able to make the right inferences. And so, that’s what I find so compelling about it.

[00:42:46] And I’ve spoken a little bit to its grounding in cognitive psychology. I’ve said he was ahead of his time. Cultural Literacy came out in ‘87. It was in the mid-eighties, the first models that most notably [00:43:00] from Walter Kinch came out in the earliest versions of the models came out in the late seventies, and then in the mid-eighties people were starting to do studies where they were looking at variations in background knowledge in children.

[00:43:13] And so, like kids who know a lot about dinosaurs or kids who know a lot about baseball versus kids who don’t know very much about dinosaurs or baseball, and then you give them passages about dinosaurs or baseball or something else to read and you see whether their expertise yields much better comprehension when it matches their background knowledge. And indeed it does. So, all of that was sort of coming online, right? As Cultural Literacy was coming out and then following that there was still more evidence piling up about ways in which background knowledge contributed to comprehension. And I’ll just mention briefly, it’s not just reading comprehension that background knowledge contributes to, it’s also reasoning, it’s also problem solving, decision making, anything that we would call critical thinking, which is creativity as well.

[00:44:01] Usually people say is, you know, the real goal of education. We don’t just want children to know a lot of stuff. We want them to know a lot of stuff in service of being adept thinkers, being competent thinkers. And I think there’s overwhelming evidence now that background knowledge, what you know, is intertwined with your ability to think effectively. So, I think that Hirsch’s made that point less often, but I think it’s very much in, keeping with what he’s been emphasizing as being vital for K-12 education in this country. Now as to why it’s not been more widely embraced in the education establishment, I think there are a couple of reasons. One is—and I’m certainly not the first to observe this—Cultural Literacy came out at a cultural moment when there was something of an outspoken conservative backlash against some ideas that were prominent in our culture. And so, Don was taken to be part of that, that the message didn’t seem to get much deeper than kids ought to know who Herbert Hoover was because that’s tradition, dammit. And that’s, you know, people should know stuff about the Founders and it didn’t get much deeper than that. The message that the more basic message of. Whatever they know that’s what they’re going to be competent to read.

[00:45:28] And therefore, Don’s argument they should know the common cultural touchstones because that’s going to be the most useful knowledge. If you want to be a good general reader, that completely got lost. So that’s one reason that he was not just unpopular, but really a villain in the eyes of many people in the education establishment because they saw him as an unthinking conservative who is just thumping the table and say, children ought to learn a lot of traditional information with nothing else behind it.

[00:46:00] The second reason that—and this is less often mentioned—I think the second contributor to the unpopularity of those ideas was that it’s intuitive to think of skills as standalone, to think of skills as a little bit like a calculator that you—doesn’t matter what the numbers are—like, you can feed in any numbers to a calculator, and it’ll still do the right things. And similarly, you want kids to develop critical thinking skills, and once they have critical thinking skills, you can sort of plug in any knowledge and they’ll be able to think critically about it. I’ve just said there’s ample evidence that’s not true. But a lot of people who are not cognitive psychologists think of it that way. And so, I think they saw Don’s idea as sort of just wrongheaded. It’s unnecessary for children to acquire a lot of knowledge. That’s much less important than acquiring skill because after all, once you have thinking skills, you can always get knowledge from books and, naturally, once the internet came along that point seemed even stronger that it became even easier to access knowledge. So there was really no reason to learn anything. So that’s my, guess at least as to why his ideas were met with such opposition.


Cara: Such a fabulous explanation. And I have to say, I feel really lucky to have read Hirsch’s work in the school of education where I got my doctorate, I think we were a bit of an outlier and to think about so many of the things that you’ve put on the table, I think it’s incredibly important, as is the work that you are doing. And it’s been just such a delight to talk to you about that work and so much more and fixing all of American education today! Professor Willingham, thank you so much.

[00:47:48] And listeners, as a reminder, this has been Professor Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. What a pleasure. Thanks so much for spending this time with us today.

[00:47:59] Dan Willingham: Thank you so much.

[00:48:00] Cara: Here we go, Gerard. We love our good friend Derrell Bradford, he hasn’t been on in a while as a guest host, but he’s retweeting, Laura Waters here about a poll that I think folks should read. I’ve read it. It’s interesting. It’s not news to me. Might be news to some of you. Important new poll out from Ed Choice. 78% of black parents support ESAs and 74% support charters. So, when we look at who’s opposing these reforms charters and ESAs, it’s really interesting to me that it doesn’t seem to be reflective of the people that are using it. So, it sounds like there are a lot of parents out there, of various backgrounds, but certainly black parents, that are looking for more reforms like ESAs and charter schools. Charter schools, in particular, have been having a tough time of it lately. We need to see that tide turn. Gerard, we’ve come to the end of our time together, my friend. Next week we are going to be speaking with Ashley Soifer. She is the Chief Innovation Officer at the National Micro Schooling Center. I am looking forward to that because micro schools are cool. I’ll see you later, Gerard. We’ll talk next week.

[00:49:07] Gerard: Talk next week. Bye.

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