People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers

Saturday, July 3rd, 2021

A second-edition of Why Don’t Students Like School has just been published, and it stands the test of time, Robert Pondiscio says:

My 2009 copy of Why Don’t Students Like School by Dan Willingham is among the most dog-eared and annotated books I own. Along with E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit (2006) and Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2010), I’m hard-pressed to think of another book in the last twenty years that had a greater impact on my teaching, thinking, or writing about education.


Willingham set out to put between two covers a set of enduring principles from cognitive science (“People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers”; “factual knowledge precedes skill”; “proficiency requires practice,” et al.) that can reliably inform and shape classroom practice — a rich vein of ore that Willingham began to mine in his “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” columns for The American Educator starting nearly twenty years ago.

I mentioned the book 11 years ago, when Bryan Caplan was annoyed that it didn’t answer the question in its title.

Here are its nine principles:

  1. People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.
  2. Factual knowledge precedes skill.
  3. Memory is the residue of thought.
  4. We understand new things in the context of things we already know.
  5. Proficiency requires practice.
  6. Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.
  7. Children are more alike than different in terms of learning.
  8. Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.

I enjoyed some of the comments on Caplan’s post

Boonton notes that people pretend that the students are the customers, or the parents are, but it’s really the taxpayers, who are paying to lock up troublesome kids. I don’t dispute this, but I must say that it’s an inefficient way to address the problem:

If schools aim to imprison students for the good of their true customers, the taxpayers, may I note that one attracts more flies with honey. New York spends $17,000 per student. An annual pass at Walt Disney World costs around $600.


  1. Freddo says:

    “their true customers, the taxpayers”

    Haha, no. Just as with IT services, whoever signs off on the bill is the customer, and everyone else is a user or recipient of the agreed upon services. And if the service is not to your liking, take a moment to reflect upon your relative importance in the greater scheme of things.

  2. Bomag says:

    Maybe the adults running Big Ed need to learn more and increase their intelligence.

    If it is all a babysitting service, or a type of church service, we could largely staff it with local volunteers and get the same outcome.

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