An Interview with Daniel Willingham and David Daniel: What Do Kids Have in Common?

Feb 1, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Dan & David, you have just published a piece in Educational Leadership- focusing on what students have in common. What brought this about?

The theme issue was on differentiating instruction. We both think that’s an important topic, but it is emphasized so much that it seems to crowd out discussions of what kids have in common.

2)      Let’s start with what students have in common- MOST, want to learn and are eager to please and MOST speak English and have some rudimentary skills. But where does a teacher go from there?

Just in the fields of cognitive/developmental psychology and education we have a corpus of a hundred or so years of research on how people think, solve problems, remember (and forget), and many other findings.  It isn’t so much that we don’t have many of the fundamentals fairly well documented.

It is more that we don’t often enough use what we know from controlled studies; and in some cases we’re still figuring out the best way to leverage them in the classroom. The teacher’s role is crucial in both adapting these general findings to pedagogical strategies that are effective in the classroom and to informing researchers about the limitations of their findings.

3)      Taking your article one step further, should we have classrooms full of boys at one end of the hall and girls at the other? Or even separate schools as we do for gifted kids ?

No! This is actually an empirical question with a fair bit of data on the point; there isn’t much support that kids benefit from this.

4)      I agree with many of your must haves- like “factual knowledge“, but would instead use the terms general information, or world knowledge or cultural literacy. Are we splitting hairs here, and if so, can we reach common ground ?

We would call “world knowledge” or “cultural literacy” a subset of factual knowledge; it’s knowledge of the world that is relatively shallow, but vital for being able to read a wide variety of texts. By “factual knowledge” we also meant, for example, knowledge of historical events that would be much deeper, and would be important for historical analysis.

In this case, factual knowledge of history lays the foundation for deeper learning. In short, factual knowledge is important, but the type of factual knowledge necessary (not just the content, but how deep it is, how interrelated to other knowledge it is) varies, depending on what you’re going to do with it.

5)      Practice makes perfect, and I am still practicing the piano and (gasp!) the accordion. But how do teachers get students to understand the importance of repetition, reheasal and review?

This is the kind of thing that teachers know much better than most lab psychologists. But the teachers we’ve seen who are great at this have several tricks: they embed practice in more complex tasks, they fuse practice with other things that are more fun (e.g., making it into a game or song), and they often are so charismatic and enthusiastic that students just go along for the ride. Older kids are, of course, better able to appreciate a straight explanation of why practice is important, and many of them will have experienced it first-hand by that time, for example, by practicing a musical instrument–maybe even accordion!

6)      Another commonality- is that all kids have parents or step parents or some responsible adult- How do teachers utilize THIS commonality?

All kids have them, but I think there is huge variability here, in terms of kids relationships with their parents, parents expectations of the school, parents’ desire and opportunity to be involved in the classroom. . .if there are commonalities here (beyond rather obvious platitudes like “get the parents involved in their child’s schooling”) we don’t know about them.

7)      Feedback- could involve grades, numbers, smiley faces- but often criticism. How does a teacher go about REALLY assessing learning and retention?

Well, we didn’t talk about assessment in the article, and it’s a big subject. So we’re going to say “Uh. . .we’ll cover that in the next article.”

8)      Kids with special needs, at least in my mind have one thing in common- they need some assistance, some guidance, some direction, some encouragement. But how do teachers provide for these common issues, or is this the realm of guidance or special education?

We’re going to start by reframing this question. Another way to put it would be “Dan and David, it’s all very nice to talk about ways that kids are the same. . .but aren’t some kids actually pretty different?” And we’d say “Of course!” As we said at the beginning of the article, either extreme gets you into trouble: if you only focus on how kids are the same, you’ll try to apply “best practices” in the same way to every kid.

But if you insist that kids have nothing in common, you can’t apply your experience with kids to this year’s classroom, not to mention applying scientific findings about the mind. Some balance is obviously necessary.

For example, one may derive “best principles” from the research yet apply them flexibly across contexts and learners. In addition, most individual differences are variations of what learners have in common.

That is, how we know that they are different! So, understanding the commonalities supports understanding of these differences and provides the possibility of adaptation of a particular strategy toward a specific learner. We wrote this article because we think that there is such an emphasis in teacher training and professional development on how kids differ, and on differentiating instruction that it sometimes becomes challenging to integrate what we know about teaching and learning into practice. We also wanted to acknowledge that many teachers work in multi-student classrooms and that there is a significant body of work that could be helpful as the foundation to their practice.

9)   What have I neglected to ask?

You might have asked “So are you saying that teachers should not differentiate instruction?” Our answer: No! That’s not what we’re saying, although when you talk about commonalities among kids, that’s what people sometimes hear. We are saying that it is beneficial to consider what we know about how students learn in general in addition to focusing upon adapting to the specific. We’re scientists, and so we focus on scientific evidence, and scientists have had more success in finding useful information about kids’ minds that applies to all kids, and less success in finding ways of categorizing kids that would be useful to teachers. That doesn’t mean teachers’ shouldn’t differentiate: it means scientists can’t help when you do.

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