Daniel T. Willingham

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Daniel T. Willingham
Born1961 (age 60–61)
Alma materHarvard University (PhD), Duke University (BA)
Scientific career
FieldsCognitive psychology
InstitutionsUniversity of Virginia
ThesisMemory Systems and Mechanisms of Motor Skill Learning (1990)
Doctoral advisorsWilliam Kaye Estes
Stephen Kosslyn

Daniel T. Willingham (born 1961) is a psychologist at the University of Virginia, where he is a professor in the Department of Psychology. Willingham's research focuses on the application of findings from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K–12 education.

Willingham earned his BA from Duke University and his PhD under William Kaye Estes and Stephen Kosslyn in cognitive psychology from Harvard University. During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, his research focused on the brain mechanisms supporting learning, the question of whether different forms of memory are independent of one another and how these hypothetical systems might interact.

Since 2002, Willingham has written the "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" column for the American Educator published by the American Federation of Teachers. In 2009, he published Why Don't Students Like School, which received positive coverage in The Wall Street Journal[1] and The Washington Post.[2]

Willingham is known as a proponent of the use of scientific knowledge in classroom teaching and in education policy. He has sharply criticized learning styles theories as unsupported[3] and has cautioned against the empty application of neuroscience in education.[4] He has advocated for teaching students scientifically proven study habits,[5][6] and for a greater focus on the importance of knowledge in driving reading comprehension.[7]

In his book "Why Don't Students Like School?" he provides nine fundamental principles that can effectively be applied to classroom use by teachers in an effort to help them understand how students' minds work, and to show how to use that knowledge to be a better teacher. He suggests it is more useful to view the human species as bad at thinking rather than as cognitively gifted. He argues the brain is not designed for thinking, it's designed to save you from having to think. He states in his book that this is because thinking is slow, effortful, and uncertain. Instead, we often rely on memory for the vast majority of decisions we make, and while memory is not always reliable, it is much more reliable than having to stop and think about every single step of every decision you need to make (for example, driving a car). He also suggests, despite the fact that our brains are not very good at thinking, we actually like to think. He reaffirms the well known idea that humans are naturally curious. However, the conditions have to be just right for curiosity to take hold (not too easy, not too hard) similar to Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. For example, a joke is always funnier when you get it without needing it to be explained. He suggests this is because of the dopamine released by the brain's natural reward system whenever we solve a problem.


  • Cognition: The Thinking Animal (4 editions: 2001, 2004, 2007, 2019: Prentice Hall, Cambridge University Press)
  • Current Directions in Cognitive Science (Ed., with Barbara Spellman: 2005: Prentice Hall)
  • Why Don't Students Like School? (2 editions 2009, 2020: Jossey-Bass)
  • When Can You Trust the Experts? (2012: Jossey-Bass)
  • Raising Kids Who Read (2015: Jossey-Bass)
  • The Reading Mind (2017: Jossey-Bass)



  1. ^ Chabris, Chris (April 27, 2009). "How to Wake Up Slumbering Minds". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  2. ^ Matthews, Jay (April 11, 2008). "The Thinking Behind Critical Thinking Courses". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  3. ^ Neighmond, Patti (August 29, 2011). "Think You're An Auditory or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It's Unlikely". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  4. ^ Higgins, John (July 11, 2012). "Teachers Learn Ways to Keep Students' Attention, But Are Brain Claims Valid?". Akron Beacon. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  5. ^ Carey, Benedict (May 12, 2011). "Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  6. ^ Belluck, Pam (January 20, 2011). "To Really Learn, Stop Studying and Take a Test". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-07-16.
  7. ^ Hirsch, E.D.; Pondiscio, R. (June 13, 2010). "There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test". The American Prospect.