Q&A with Dr. Daniel Willingham

Dr. Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, answers questions about effective teaching, reading comprehension, cognitive science, and more.

Dr. Willingham earned his B.A. from Duke University in 1983 and his PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Harvard University in 1990. He is currently Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. Today, his research focuses on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 education. He writes the "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" column for American Educator magazine. For more information, visit Dr. Willingham's website.

How do I encourage my daughter's teacher to teach to her strengths?

As a parent, I feel like I know my child's strengths and weaknesses better than her teacher. For example, my child is a very visual learner, yet her teacher rarely teaches to my daughter's visual strength. What can I do to encourage my daughter's teacher to teach to her strengths?

Talking to a teacher about his or her practice is a tricky issue indeed. The teacher may have more or less opportunity to tune teaching to individual students, depending on the number of kids in the class, whether there is a mandated set of lesson plans, and other issues. You haven't mentioned your daughter's age, but that is also an important factor. A first grade teacher is more likely to think that she should change her teaching style to accommodate your daughter, whereas a high school teacher may feel that your daughter is old enough to start learning to adjust to her teachers.

So, what should you say? If a teacher senses that a parent is trying to tell him or her how to teach, the conversation seldom goes well. Keep the focus on your daughter, and keep it specific. Describe what you see as aspects of the class with which your daughter is struggling. Invite the teacher's opinion; that is, make it a two way conversation. Also, be open to ways that you can solve the problem with manageable changes your daughter might make. For example, if you think that the teacher talks too much and ought to write things on the board, could your daughter jot down instructions as she hears them?

A final thought. I would be open to the possibility that teachers may know things about our sons and daughters that we don't, for the simple reason that children may act differently at school and at home. And while we, of course, know our children intimately, the teacher has had experience with scores or hundreds of children at that age.

Is it important to have a separate grade for effort on a report card?

Our reports cards require that we give students a grade for achievement and effort in each subject area. I like this configuration because some of my kids work hard, and I can reward them through their effort grade. But some of my colleagues are arguing for a change in the system; they only want to report an achievement grade. Given your research into kids and schools, which configuration would you support?

I would retain the effort grade, for two reasons. First, it's useful feedback for the child and for parents. There is good evidence that determination, and perseverance are hugely important to many school outcomes that most people care about. And as described in the book, there is also evidence that students' beliefs about effort are important. When students believe that effort leads to achievement, they are more likely to work hard, and not to get discouraged by failure, because they believe that, with more effort, they might succeed. If, in contrast, they believe effort doesn't matter much and what really counts is ability, then failure is very discouraging because it indicates that they lack ability, and there is nothing that they can do about it.

A second reason to retain the effort grade is that it can provide useful feedback for teachers. If the two grades for a given child are very dissimilar, that seems important to me. The child who is getting high grades in achievement and low grades in effort would seem to need more challenging work. The child showing the opposite pattern needs less challenging work.

I'd like to know why your colleagues want the effort grade eliminated. My hunch is that they don't want kids to get the message that achievement doesn't matter much and all that matters is trying hard. I'm sympathetic to that. Perhaps there is a way that effort can be acknowledged and praised, without diminishing the importance of reaching goals. The relative importance of grades should be explicit and can also be signaled visually on a report card by the size and positioning of the grades.

What words would you use to describe a really effective elementary teacher?

What words would you use to describe a really effective elementary teacher?

I think that there are lots of ways of being a good teacher, so I'm reluctant to try to come up with labels. The only characteristic that I think is indispensible is that he or she understands kids.

I've never taught an elementary classroom so I can't really know what it's like, but from my observations what impresses me most is the rapidity with which decisions must be made. Decisions about how the lesson is going, whether to change course, whether and how to discipline, and so on. The wisdom of almost all of those decisions rests heavily on the teacher's knowledge of children. The teacher must judge who understands and who is confused. The teacher must judge when the class as a whole is too tired to think anymore. When a child is hit on the playground and tells the teacher "I'm okay," the teacher must judge whether he's really okay. The list could be never-ending.

How can I help my early elementary students develop their reading comprehension skills?

In one of your articles, you stated that strategy instruction is unlikely to help students younger than third or fourth grade. As a first-grade teacher, what can I do to help my students develop their reading comprehension without relying on strategy instruction?

I think of three things, two of them rather indirect. The truth is that it's difficult to do much with comprehension in first grade because most of the student's attention and working memory must be directed to the problem of decoding. So the first way that a first-grade teacher can aid comprehension is to ensure that all students can decode fluently.

In later grades, comprehension depends much more on knowledge than it does on reading strategies. Learning reading strategies does give students a sizable boost in comprehension, but it's a one-time thing. Further practice doesn't help. But students who have some knowledge about a passage will comprehend it much better than students who lack that knowledge. In older kids, the correlation between general world knowledge and scores on reading comprehension tests is quite high. (You don't see as high a correlation in young children, because reading testes in early grades focus mostly on decoding, not comprehension.)

Thus, the second thing that a first-grade teacher can do to boost students' reading comprehension is to ensure that students have a broad basis of knowledge. When I hear that science, history, geography and other core subjects are being squeezed out in frantic preparation for reading tests, I am concerned. It may help with reading tests (which are really decoding tests) in first grade, but this practice will come back to haunt school systems when these kids get to fourth or fifth grade-their lack of world knowledge will hurt them on reading comprehension tests.

The third thing a first grade teacher can do-which I'm sure you already know and do, but I couldn't not mention it-is everything possible to ensure that students like reading. Kids who view reading as fun read more, and it's a positive feedback loop. More reading makes reading seem like more fun (because it's easier), which makes students read more, and so on.

Why is cognitive science so pertinent to today's educational climate?

The response to your new book, Why Don't Students Like School, has been tremendous. Why do you think policy makers and educators are so drawn to your work? What about today's educational climate makes the findings from cognitive science so pertinent?

That's a generous assessment. I don't really know why people like my writing, but I can tell you two principles that I try to use in thinking about schooling.

First, I try to remain theoretically agnostic. I try not to adhere to a "school of thought," but just to size up the data that are available. Naturally, the way that anyone evaluates data is colored by what he or she already believes. But there are tricks you can employ that help to keep you honest. (For example, saying to yourself "I believe X is true. Suppose the opposite of X is true-can I make the available data fit that proposition?"). I'm aided by this in my background, which is in cognitive neuroscience. People in that field are very data-oriented, and the field is fast-moving. If you're not open to changing your mind as new data come in, you won't last long.

Second, I try to take a large-scale, system-wide view. One of the big dangers in education is oversimplification. "Oh, it looks like X improves learning. We need more X in schools." But putting X in schools might have far-reaching consequences. What does X do to student motivation? What do teachers think about X? It's essential to have a system-wide view.

Daniel T. Willingham (2013)

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"Wear the old coat and buy the new book." — Austin Phelps