Students sitting in front of lockers

Why Students Don’t Like School

I was fascinated this year by the book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, by Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.  His research has focused on the brain basis of learning and memory and the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education.

One of the concepts from this book that has been rolling around in my head is the need for the learner to attend to information being presented in order for it to be learned.  A person receives information from his/her environment and uses his working memory to attend to the information.  Once the information is understood the learner can store the information in long term memory and ultimately use that information in life.  If the student doesn’t attend then she will be unable to move to understanding, store the information, and eventually use the information.  This seems accurate to me, but I keep asking whose responsibility it is to make sure “attending” is happening when information is given?

It seems to me that the responsibility lies with the learner primarily because no one can force another person to attend to the information being provided.  Could one of the implications of Jesus’ words “He who has ears, let him hear” be related to the need for attention when information is being given, especially when the Word of God is being taught/preached?  “You have ears people” but hearing will involve attending, understanding, and obeying.

But the teacher has some responsibility, too, I think.  I’m asking these questions: Do I teach too long?  Am I boring?  Do I engage the learner?  Do I sense when people are drifting and try to bring them back?  Do I ask them to turn off their phones, tablets, and laptops so they can attend to the information being presented by me or by their classmates?

I know that ultimately the truth of God is apprehended by a disciple because of the Holy Spirit’s work, and I’m convinced that those of us who teach and equip the saints must be guided by the Holy Spirit in our preparation and delivery.  But I think teachers of God’s Word should engage learners in such a way that the mind is directed to attend to the information being provided.


About Ron Marrs

Ron Marrs is presently a Professor of Youth and Pastoral Ministry and Chairman of the Center for Ministry and Leadership at Western Seminary, Portland, OR. Ron is the leader of the Portland Youth Workers Network. He served at Westwood Baptist Church, a Converge church, for 24.5 years primarily as the youth pastor and then as executive/worship pastor. He has been married to Becky for 35 years, has three children and three grandsons. He is an elder at Hinson Baptist Church. He recently completed doctoral research in which he interviewed 26 people about their rookie youth pastor experiences along with 24 of their supervisors.

6 thoughts on “Why Students Don’t Like School

  1. I have a lot of the same thoughts in myv8th grade science classroom. There are so many times I look out I to my class to blank faces. I think it is the job of the teacher to make the content as interesting and easy to digest as possible, but ultimately, the responsibility lies with the learner. Only they have access to what is actually stored and processed in their minds. We need to strive to check with them when we can, but if the study t doesn’t care enough to pay attention and learn, no amount of preparation will make things stick.

    Very thoughtful and relevant post. Thanks Ron!

    1. Neil,

      Glad to hear from a classroom teacher. For many years I’ve wondered if we are somehow killing curiosity in our formal school systems. At Corban University I’m teaching a class “Teaching the Bible” required for most of the students as a general education class. Every teaching session I am thinking hard about how to introduce the class so that every student is “hooked” into the material. At times I wonder if I’m overdoing it but so far I’m compelled to given an “apologetic” every time as to why they will find this valuable information.

      Continuing to learn,


  2. This is good. I know for me, if I’m listening to a teacher who just has to keep going because he has so much to cover, but I don’t get a chance to interact, it is very difficult for me to retain anything. I have really come to appreciate being in a church setting where we are able to interact a bit during the teaching. In traditional church settings it’s easy to zone out. As a teacher, one of the gems I’ve picked up recently is “if they aren’t learning, you aren’t teaching”; it’s too easy as a teacher / preacher to blame the students / church attendees for not retaining anything, but are we giving them the opportunity to interact and “attend” to the data?

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