- Willingham's basic theme is that, despite everything you've heard, nothing works to increase student ability like factual learning and practice. In fact, one of his first ideas is to point out that what separates the excellent student (or adult) from those performing less well is their ability to recall facts. The more facts you know about your subject, the more you can understand your subject because of significantly less energy spent on fact recall or retention. With facts learned to automaticity, more time can be spent on higher-order concept learning, and once that becomes automatic....etc.
- Another big idea in education that Willingham works to dispel is the idea that we all have different learning styles - auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Cognitive science, in fact, has shown the opposite: with minor variation, we all learn very similarly.
(I was sitting with Olga Addae, the head of the SEA, last night at the School Reports meeting. I asked about the leeway teachers have in the classroom because I hear this from SPS staff a lot. She said yes, teachers do have some leeway but it depends on the principal and it may not be there because of the required things teachers have to have in place according to the district. They have to have specific things written on the blackboard, in specific places, a lesson plan on the blackboard, etc. I'd like to hear from teachers about the leeway they have in how they present the curriculum.)
The upshot was that kids need both pieces - that they are two separate parts of knowledge. Once they understand the concept, the drill piece allows them to memorize those math facts, for example, more quickly.
What was interesting is Dr. Willingham's rejection of the best practice of "whole child" which is currently popular. He talked about learning about things that have meaning rather than drills that don't connect the learning to meaning. He also said that there is an emphasis on making learning "fun" and that learning is sometimes hard and not always fun. (Ms. Thompson agreed with that as do I.)
He talked about what was embedded in differentiated instruction is that students have different minds and can use that knowledge but the idea that scientists understand this well and can capitalize on this has not been proven.
Knowledge begets knowledge - the more you know, the more you can learn was his takeaway message.