The Surprising Reason Some Students Don't Like School

A young boy sitting and reading a book

This post was originally published in August 2015, and has been updated for accuracy and relevancy in October 2021.

If you ask most k-12 students what they don't like about school, their lists will be lengthy. While online school students won't make the usual complaints about getting up early for long bus rides or eating cafeteria food like most kids will, their lists will typically include such items as: 

But ask cognitive psychologist Daniel T. Willingham the same question and you'll get a much more surprising answer: 


Thinking Is Hard

According to Willingham, students dislike school because thinking is hard, effortful, and slow. As he explains in his recently revised, second edition of "Why Don't Students Like School," thinking requires students to: 

  • Retrieve information from their immediate environment and the vast factual storehouse of their long-term memory 
  • Combine that information in new ways in their more limited, short-term working memory 
  • Imagine solutions based on those new combinations 

So, even though they're naturally curious, students (and the rest of us, too!) will avoid thinking—unless the learning conditions are right


What Are the Right Conditions for Thinking?

The proper conditions for learning are the conditions or activities that allow students to experience the pleasurable rush of solving problems—whether those problems are algebra equations or struggling to understand Shakespeare's sonnets.  

In fact, neuroscientists believe that the pleasurable rush may be the actual rush of chemicals produced by the brain’s natural reward system. Remember how it feels to get that last crossword, Sudoku, or Jeopardy answer? Well, students love that feeling of success just as much as you do. 


Why Do Students Say “I Hate School?”

So, when a student hates school, Willingham says what they're actually disliking are the conditions that rob thinking of its pleasure, such as: 


Working on problems that are too easy or too difficult.  

If a problem is too easy, your student will get no pleasure from solving it. If the problem appears too difficult, your student will shut down the thought process because it seems to offer no pleasurable payoff. As in “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” the problems have to be "just right." 


Tackling problems that assume too much background knowledge. 

We've all faced this one before, but think of it from a second-grader's viewpoint. Asked to solve "What is 18 × 7?" in her head, she’ll need to know not only that 8 × 7 is 56 but also the procedure for doing the math. Lacking even one piece of required background knowledge, she'll be unable to solve the problem. If this happens often enough, you'll end up with a student who dislikes school. 


Working on problems that exceed the limits of working memory. 

Working memory is the limited "space" where ideas are briefly held and manipulated. It can get quickly overcrowded by "multistep instructions, lists of unconnected facts, chains of logic more than two or three steps long, and the application of a just-learned concept to new material (unless the concept is quite simple)." 

As working memory becomes crowded, thinking becomes increasingly difficult. To put it another way: 




How Parents and Learning Coaches Can Help

Collaboration is the key. As a parent or a Connections Academy® Learning Coach in a virtual school, you're in an ideal position to know that your student becomes frustrated when assignments are too hard or bored when they're too easy. You’ll also know when learning conditions are "just right" for giving your online student that pleasurable rush of problem-solving success. 

With your help and feedback, virtual school teachers can better understand your individual student's thought processes and help ensure the very best conditions for thinking, learning, and liking school. We hope these insights from cognitive psychology will help you support your child's education and allow you to become the best Learning Coach you can be. 

Of course, there may be other reasons your teenage student doesn’t like school. Find out how online school can help struggling teens

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