Why Don’t Students Like School?

Faking a sickness to our parents to skip school only to subsequently call our friends to join, borrowing a Ferrari, joy riding around downtown Chicago, an impromptu joining of a parade float to sing The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”, and narrowly making it back home in time so as to keep the charade of illness to our parents. We’ve all been there, right? Or maybe only Ferris Bueller has…

Maybe not under as extravagant circumstances but there has probably been a time when we wished to skip school. Now why don’t students like school? This is a valid question and coincidentally the title of Daniel Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School? Willingham is a cognitive scientist that answers relevant questions about how the mind works and its implications for the classroom.


The most intriguing chapter I found from his book was also the first chapter that I read. He  explains how contrary to popular belief, the brain is not made for thinking but rather to save us from thinking. Students are naturally curious and wish to solve this curiosity but only under the correct circumstances. This curiosity is fragile and can be broken when frustration hits. He then provides a problem for us to solve: In an empty room are a candle, some matches, and a box of tacks. The goal is to have the lit candle about five feet off of the ground. You tried melting some wax on the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall but it was not effective. How can you get the candle five feet off the ground without holding it there?

The maximum time allowed is 20 min but few are able to solve it. The answer is rather simple: Dump the tacks out of the box, tack the box to the wall, and use it as a platform for the candle.

According to Willingham, the reason this was so difficult is because of three reasons: thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain. He goes on to the explain the importance of prior knowledge or experience to be able to successfully complete something. Maybe this is why school is so frustrating for students. I remember as a kid whenever I couldn’t figure out a problem I would just get very frustrated, probably cry, and complain about how I hated that class or that assignment just because I couldn’t get the answer right. My mother would usually make me take a break before allowing me to return to the problem. When I did and I was able to figure it out, I felt this immense joy and automatically enjoyed the problem much more. This makes sense though, doesn’t it? We don’t usually like the classes that we are struggling in because we don’t understand them. We want to be in control of the situation which usually consists of us being able to navigate the problems and homework assignments assigned to us.

I found this chapter of Willingham’s novel to be very accurate to my own experiences, but also something that I had not really considered before. I have not finished the rest of the book yet but plan on doing so to see what else Willingham has to say about how our mind works and how this is applicable to the classroom.

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One Response to Why Don’t Students Like School?

  1. Autumn Grace says:

    This is such a cool post. I actually felt dumb for a minute because I could not figure out the match problem myself until I kept reading (lol).

    Even though this was just a fun exercise, it is so relevant because I see so many children in my tutoring center just shut down when they can’t figure something out. Having previous experience certainly helps, but experience or no experience, we always want to be in control. When we can’t figure something out, it becomes very frustrating, and depending on their temperament, many children will just shut down.

    So given that we know how this works, how can we keep children motivated and encouraged to practice certain subjects that they find particularly difficult?


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