Outsmart your Brain

Like any fan of cognitive science in the classroom, Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? is one of the “must reads” I recommend to anyone interested in how children learn. These days, I come across fewer and fewer people who have not read it. Willingham’s latest offering, Outsmart your Brain, covers many of the same principles, but this time these are addressed directly to the learner.

Although this book is aimed at university students there is a lot that educators can take from it for the secondary classroom. I’ve also found parts highly applicable when thinking, as I currently am, a lot about adult education – how we train teachers, and support them to develop through their teaching career.

While parts of the book will feel familiar to fans of cognitive science everywhere, there are so many gems here. The entire section on how to take notes, for example, should be excerpted and taught to every sixth former in the land. Core aspects of learning like retrieval practice and the difference between performance and learning are explored in ways secondary students will really understand, and so could provide a useful prompt for educators seeking to help their charges understand how learning works. I’ve read about overlearning elsewhere, but Willingham’s explanation is typically no-nonsense and succinct:

First, overlearning works, just as you would expect it to. It protects against forgetting. Second, while you’re doing it, it feels as though it’s not working. It feels pointless, even foolish, to keep studying after you know something. You’re going through your flash card deck and getting every answer right, so you can’t help but wonder, “What good is this doing?” What it’s doing is strengthening the memories to shield them from forgetting.” Again, more gold dust to use when pupils claim to “already know this.

As well as the science of learning, Outsmart your Brain shades into aspects of how we work with young people, and it is in these sections we get a glimpse of Willingham the educator (can you imagine being a university student learning from him?): “If your students consistently do not ask questions, you should wonder about your relationship with them. They are not quiet because your explanations are so brilliant and clear. They’re quiet because they see asking a question as taking a risk. Ask yourself why that is.”

The final aspect of this book that I loved was Willingham’s exploration of what I’d term the problem of being human. How we learn is not quite the same as how to learn, and his understanding of the vagaries of human disposition comes into sharp focus here. Straplines such as “do not rely on willpower if you can change the environment instead” will be valuable to teachers everywhere. His explanation of the motivation to learn is clearly drawn, including here:

We are more likely to procrastinate if we think we can’t succeed at the task we ought to do. If your instructor assigns Bleak House, you not only have all of the usual reasons to procrastinate; you also notice that the book is more than nine hundred pages long. Feeling as though you can never finish such a long book makes starting it feel like buying a lottery ticket. ‘The prize—finishing the book—sounds appealing, but I don’t think I’ll get the prize. So why start the book?’… Ambitious goals are so intimidating that we won’t attempt them. The trick is to set a much smaller goal.

Finally, one for the edu-tweeters out there whose time is drained by social media, Willingham provides advice about procrastinating in this way that is aimed at students but really meant for all of us: “For one work session, give yourself permission to check your phone as often as you want, but commit to recording three things. When you pick up your phone, rate from 1 to 7 how much you want to check it. When you’re ready to return to work, record how long you were on your phone, and rate from 1 to 7 how much you enjoyed.” There are two further steps to this, but actually this was plenty for me.

Lastly, I’d advise UK readers to go ahead and buy the Kindle version. I spent a tense week patiently awaiting my paperback arrival, before realising the estimated dispatch date was in February 2024. It will of course be well worth the wait, but I wouldn’t if you can read it now.


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