There are myriad books and professional development materials devoted to the study of learning styles. The problem, says University of Virginia cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, PhD, is that most of them don't rely on good science.

"If you talk to teachers frequently, they're surprised there isn't a firm research base for different learning styles," says Willingham, author of the books "When Can You Trust the Experts?" and "Why Don't Students Like School?"

That lack of good information is among the reasons Willingham has devoted his work to researching the application of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K–12 education — and popularizing the information for the general public. In addition to providing commentary about science and education on the education blog, he is working to help schools and families determine which educational approaches — from games and software to training programs and workbooks — are scientifically supported and worth adopting.

Willingham spoke with the Monitor about the importance of offering students a challenging curriculum and providing motivation and praise to help struggling students.

What are some of the other unfounded beliefs teachers have about what works in the classroom?

One example is so-called neuromyths, or beliefs that some educators may have about the brain. For example, the characterization of left-brain versus right-brain thinking is not well-supported and really never has been.

The truth is that most teachers in my experience really have a lot of common sense. There are ideas that are peddled to them that are wrong, but most teachers are pretty skeptical of them. They're in the classroom every day, so they have a sense of what works and what doesn't work with kids.

Why has it been so hard to get evidence-based techniques into the classroom?

One reason is that what works in the lab doesn't always work in the classroom. In the laboratory, we're typically looking at one or two variables at a time, whereas in the classroom, there are lots of variables, all of which can affect learning simultaneously.

Another big piece of the problem is that in education, there is no one who is translating what the research really means for the classroom. If you're a physician, for example, there are institutions that publish reliable, periodic summaries about what's new in medicine. In education, we don't have that at all. Teachers and administrators have to fend for themselves and judge whether or not something that claims to be research-based really is.

In consequence, it's kind of a free-for-all right now. People are selling books, professional development, curricula and instructional materials, claiming that they are backed by science and it's up to teachers and administrators to figure out whether or not there's legitimacy to these claims. Who has the time?

What does work to improve outcomes in the classroom?

There are lots of things we know work, but it depends on the subject matter and on the grade. The big piece is that curriculum matters a lot. You have to have a curriculum that challenges kids and is sequenced in a sensible way. There are good data on this in mathematics. The data aren't as good in other subject areas, but there are theoretical reasons to think that the same would be true for them.

The amount of time students spend on tasks also matters. People shouldn't be surprised that in international tests U.S. kids do OK on science in fourth grade, but then as they get older they don't do as well on science compared with their international peers. It happens because we don't spend very much time on science in this country.

The third big component I would point to is teacher skill. It's easier for students to learn from someone with whom they feel an emotional connection, someone who believes in them and is on their side. Understanding what it is that motivates his or her students is also part of teacher skill, and within that, the ability to set tasks for students that are both engaging and substantive. An engaging task is going to be one that is just a little bit beyond their reach, so to understand that, you need to know where they are now. And that brings up another aspect of skill, which is being able to do some amount of differentiation and recognizing that students come into class with different levels of preparation.

What's your take on rote learning? What has your research — or that of other researchers — shown about its importance for student outcomes?

I reserve the term rote learning for instances where you memorize something and it is completely devoid of meaning and not connected to anything else. So a child who memorizes the Pledge of Allegiance and it's just words, some of which the child doesn't even understand — I would call that rote learning. More often when people say rote learning, they're referring to what I would call shallow learning, which means that your understanding of whatever you've learned is not rich, it's not really connected to many other things. When we really feel we understand something, the signature of that understanding is that this knowledge is embedded in a web of other associations, so you have a good understanding of how it's situated and how it relates to other similar sorts of information and changes depending on the context.

That being said, there are many instances where having really memorized something is very useful. Lots of data show that memorizing number facts like the times table and some addition facts is very useful, and if you memorize those to the point of automaticity, where you really don't need to think about it and you certainly don't need to calculate it, that frees up space in your mind so that you can work on more complicated math problems. If you're working on long division and you have to stop and calculate every time you see 2+3, you may lose the thread of the problem or you may calculate incorrectly, so there's lots of data showing that memorizing facts of that sort is very useful. Likewise, you really need to memorize the rules of association between letters and sounds — those are two of the most obvious instances where, yes, if you want to call that rote you can call it rote, but it's really very, very useful.

How can teachers use technology to improve educational outcomes?

What we know best is that simply buying a lot of technology like laptops or interactive white boards doesn't work. Teachers need ideas about how to exploit these tools in the classroom. There will always be a few teachers who are willing to spend a lot of their evenings and weekends trying to figure out what to do with that technology, and some of them will come up with really cool ideas, but most don't have the resources to do that.

Still, there's a lot of promise with new technology, especially with the idea of individualizing instruction, but one of the things that has been overlooked is that you really need good content. If you're working on mathematics, for example, and you get a certain number of problems of a certain type wrong, that tells the program, OK, this needs to be explained again, and so we'll have a different explanation this time around than the one you saw before and then we'll have some other problems for you to work on. You have a branching tree of possible ways through this instructional program, and if you want to make it really sensitive to how the student is doing, the number of branches needs to explode and the content on each of those branches is really important. But most of the time, the content just isn't there.

What are some things teachers can do for kids who are already behind?

The most important thing for teachers is to recognize that there aren't any shortcuts or silver bullets out there. Every child, no matter how far behind they are, can catch up, but it takes a lot of persistence on the part of the student. Once you have a child who starts to conclude that school is not for them because they're not succeeding — and this is happening today in third grade or even earlier — then you have an enormous motivation problem. There are good data that in early elementary school, the relationship between student and teacher is enormously important, and that kids will learn more from teachers whom they really like. That doesn't go away as kids get older, and it becomes more important for kids who are struggling academically.

This is something people point to as potentially missing from technology: You don't have this personal relationship. So, we want to make sure that a technology-enabled classroom also fosters a personal relationship with the teacher. The person who has the best chance of persuading a struggling student to really try and to believe in themselves is someone he or she feels close to and has a good relationship with.

Tell me about your forthcoming book, "Raising Readers in the Age of Distraction."

The general idea of the book is to help parents foster more leisure reading among their children. Most parents would love for their child to choose reading as a leisure activity — and there are lots of data indicating that leisure reading is associated with good academic outcomes — but most teens do very, very little reading.

I argue that there are three things that need to be in place for you to be a reader: You need to be good at decoding, or sounding out words, you need to have at least a little bit of knowledge about a wide variety of subjects and you need motivation. There's a lot of emphasis put on decoding in kindergarten and first grade, but background knowledge is not really paid much attention to at all. Motivation is paid attention to only once motivation falls off the table, which is around puberty for most kids, and that's when they really lose any interest they had in reading.

You need to pay attention to all three pretty much from birth. One of the biggest things is that I suggest to parents that they limit screen time. The bumper sticker is: Don't coerce the child — change the environment. Don't make them read by saying things like "You can go out and play after you've read for 30 minutes." You're very clearly turning reading into work with that formulation. Instead, make reading the most interesting thing there is to do. Part of that is putting books in places where your child is bored. There should be a basket of books in the minivan. You can't be surprised if your kid doesn't read if you put a DVD player in the minivan and in their bedroom and you're playing videos all the time. You have to make reading the most attractive thing around.

Amy Novotney is a journalist in Chicago.

Bringing psychology to schools

APA's Task Force on the Applications of Psychological Science to Teaching and Learning has developed 10 modules to help translate psychological science for pre-K-12 teachers. The modules focus on topics such as practice for knowledge acquisition, research in brain function and learning and the use of praise and motivation. More information is available online.

"People shouldn't be surprised that in international tests U.S. kids do OK on science in fourth grade, but then as they get older they don't do as well on science compared with their international peers. It happens because we don't spend very much time on science in this country."


  • Willingham blogs at
  • Willingham, D. (2010). Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass.
  • Willingham, D. (2012). When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education. Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass.