Prof. Willingham is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, When Can You Trust the Experts?, Raising Kids Who Read,
and The Reading Mind
. He is one of the leading experts in the science of learning and memory and how cognitive psychology can be applied to elementary and high school education.
“Memory is the residue of thought,” argues Prof. Willingham, in one of his most-quoted lines. A student cannot absorb facts into his or her mind without actively thinking about the information, thereby making it meaningful. True understanding comes when we are able to explain a new idea in our own words and then apply it to new contexts.
Prof. Willingham’s research is mentioned in the book, The Knowledge Gap
by Natalie Wexler, one of the books the faculty and staff were asked to read over the summer. Ms. Wexler asserts that schools cannot simply teach children reading and math skills with the hopes that they will use these skills to acquire knowledge later. In fact, cognitive science has proven that even when equipped with perfect decoding skills, one cannot fully comprehend a piece of text without the pertinent background knowledge and vocabulary (a point Prof. Willingham emphasized to us in his talk). This is very much in line with the philosophy of St. Bernard’s which has a content-based curriculum. Yes, St. Bernard’s boys will leave 98th Street with a firm grasp of critical reading, writing, and mathematics, but equally as important, the school will try its best to make sure the boys possess a solid foundation of knowledge about the world around them.