Willingham, Flow, and Why Students Don't Like School
By Bryan Caplan
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.”