July 18, 2024

Willingham – Cognitive science in teaching… critic of learning styles and 21st C skills…

Author: Donald Clark
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Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, has a background in research on learning and memory which he has masterfully turned into concrete advice for teachers in schools. He is an advocate for turning research in cognitive science into practice in education, both in teaching and the promotion of optimal study strategies for learners.

Knowledge matters

Memory matters as we have instant recall from long-term memory which helps us make instinctive decisions. This is why Willingham derides those who demote knowledge at the expense of teaching and learning strategies that focus largely on exploratory or discovery learning. 

Nine cognitive principles 

In Why Don’t Students Like School? Willingham has nine cognitive principles about learners, which if taken on board by teachers, will improve teacher performance. He thinks that thinking does not come naturally to learners and that one must be sensitive to a number if findings in cognitive science to be an optimal teacher and learner. Memory and cognition really do matter and to ignore what we know about these findings in cognitive science is, for Willingham, to work blind or worse to adopt fads live learning styles and the 21st century skills agenda. These are his nine cognitive principles:

1 Curious

People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.

2 Knowledge

Factual knowledge must precede skill.

3 Memory

Memory is the residue of thought.

4 Understanding

We understand new things in the context of things we already know and most of what we know is concrete.

5 Proficiency

It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.

6 Cognition

Cognition early in training is fundamentally different from cognition late in training.

7 Differences

Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.

8 Intelligence

Children do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.

9 Teaching

Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practice to be improved.

Learning styles

A critic of learning styles, he thinks that teachers mistake the idea that learners are different for other differences, especially ‘ability’. His belief that knowledge precedes skills has led to his critique of the teaching of 21st century skills. Like almost all cognitive psychologists, he thinks the evidence is clear that ‘learning styles’ do not exist. He thinks that learning styles as a theory of how people learn, a theory of learning, is quite simply false.

21st century skills

Willingham thinks that the 21st century skills agenda is not only flawed but dangerous, in that it harms the poorest students and students of colour hardest. The flaw, he thinks, is in thinking that knowledge and skills are separate entities, when they are entwined. To think critically or creatively or to problem solve is to use knowledge central to the domain. To be creative or critical in science or coding, you need to know science and how to code. The danger is in introducing complex 21st century skills too early (he quotes ‘New Maths of the 60s as an example). He is sceptical about teaching self-direction, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Are they teachable or just an excuse to bring back exploratory learner-centric models? There is little evidence that they can be taught and, in practice, teachers rarely employ this approach in practice. So, without clear proof that they can be taught, better assessment the focus on “21st-century skills” will be shallow. This mean we “will sacrifice long-term gains for the appearance of short-term progress”.


Willingham is seen as part of the backlash against progressive methods, that many see as not only having gone too far but actually harmful to poor students.


Willingham, D.T., 2009. Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Willingham, D.T., 2007. Critical thinking: Why it is so hard to teach?. American federation of teachers summer 2007, p. 8-19.

Rotherham, A.J. and Willingham, D.T., 2010. 21st-Century” skills. American Educator, 17(1), pp.17-20.

Willingham, D.T., Hughes, E.M. and Dobolyi, D.G., 2015. The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), pp.266-271.

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