Would you say you’re a 👁️ visual or an 👂🏼 auditory learner? What if I told you that the research has actually debunked the theory that learning styles even exist?

So, then what actually is the best way for helping our kids to learn, feel successful, and become resilient?

That is exactly what I’ll be talking about with University of Virginia Professor of Psychology and the author of several amazing books, including the best-selling Why Don’t Students Like School?, and most recently, Outsmart Your Brain, Dr. Dan Willingham.

In this episode we’re shedding light on the factors that influence a child’s sense of self-efficacy, the importance of a growth mindset, and the delicate balance between praising effort and problem-solving for success.

Whether you’re a parent, teacher, or clinician, this is an episode you won’t want to miss!

EPISODE CORRECTION: In this episode we talk about The Marshmallow Test. Current research has subsequently shown that the findings of this test are not as predictive of long-term behaviors and outcomes in children as was originally suggested. To learn more, click here to read about the latest findings from the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Dr. Dan (00:00):

Some kids need to learn like, you know what? Sometimes you try your hardest and it still doesn’t work out, but that’s okay. You need to learn how to try your hardest fail. Pick yourself up and move forward. I’ve heard so many parents say, this is what sports taught my child. Because in regular classes, the teachers make sure that that never happens, right? You can keep redoing assignments until you get whatever grade you want. That’s especially true after the pandemic.

Dr. Sarah (00:36):

Are you a visual learner or maybe you’re an auditory learner, whichever you are. It’s a concept you’ve probably been told since you were in grade school. But what if I told you that the research has actually debunked the theory of learning styles years ago? This along with what the research shows actually is the best way for helping kids to learn, feel successful and become resilient is exactly what I’ll be talking about with this week’s guest. I am so excited to be joined by University of Virginia, professor of Psychology, Dr. Dan Willingham. Dan has spent years researching the brain basis of learning and memory and the application of cognitive psychology to K through 16 education. He’s also the author of several amazing books, including the bestselling, Why Don’t Students Like School? and most recently Outsmart Your Brain. In this episode, we are going to shed some light on the factors that influence a child’s sense of self-efficacy, the importance of a growth mindset, and the delicate balance between praising effort and problem solving for success. Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or a clinician, this is an episode you won’t want to miss.


Do you ever feel like you are a broken record repeating yourself over and over and over again wishing your child would just cooperate and things didn’t devolve into a battle all the time. A few months ago, I hosted a masterclass to help parents overcome power struggles, and since then I have received so many follow-up questions and requests from parents wanting more. So I am bringing it back along with an interactive live Q&A to help you tailor these strategies to your unique child and your unique situation.


In this masterclass, you’re going to learn why the strategies that you’re using to either avoid or win a power struggle just aren’t working and why they likely never will. You’ll learn the real problem that leads to power struggles in the first place and how to break out of this trap my exact framework for mapping out your child’s challenging behaviors and how to create a personalized toolbox for your own child and the specific power struggles that you guys find yourself in over and over again. There are going to be two chances to attend so that busy parents can find a time that works best for them. Join me either on Tuesday, January 30th at 3:00 PM Eastern time, or Thursday, February 1st at 1:00 PM Eastern Time or come to both. The masterclass will be the same, but the q and a will be chockfull of new tips and real world applications each time. So to enroll and register, go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to grab your free seat. In my masterclass, it’s called From Battles to Bonding: Overcoming Power Struggles. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. I cannot wait to see you there.


Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.


Hello, welcome. Today we have Dr. Dan Willingham here and we are going to learn all about outsmarting our brain. So I’m super pumped. I’m a total brain geek, so I am really thrilled to talk brain stuff.

Dr. Dan (04:23):

I’m really happy to be here, Sarah, and I’m a brain geek too, so this is going to be fabulous.

Dr. Sarah (04:27):

Awesome. So for people who aren’t familiar with your work, can you share a little bit about what you do, a little bit about how you got into this particular topic on brain and learning, and then because your work didn’t always look like this, so can you talk about the evolution as well of where you started, how you got here?

Dr. Dan (04:50):

Yeah, absolutely. There is a little bit of a story here. So I trained, got my PhD at the intersection of experimental psychology and neuroscience. So in graduate school, what I was studying was specifically the question of whether there are different sort of brain systems that handle different types of learning and how we might characterize those types of learning and so on. So I was very much like a basic scientist and the joke I tell in my most recent book is the very old joke is like when you get a PhD, your parents introduce you as my son, the doctor, but not the type of doctor who helps people. And I sort of went one better because I was a learning scientist who really couldn’t tell you how to learn any better. The work I was doing was very technical and not really the kind of thing that was super helpful in day-to-day life.


And so I did that. I got my PhD in 1990. I did that work until the early two thousands and I was a professor at the University of Virginia just doing my thing and had no interest in education at all beyond trying to be competent in teaching my own classes here. And then in the early two thousands, I was asked to give a talk to a big national conference of teachers and I said to them, listen, I’m the type of learning scientist who doesn’t help you learn. I don’t know anything about classrooms or anything. And they were like, no, we get that. We just think teachers might find it interesting. So I have an ego like anybody else. So I was like, sure, I’ll go talk to a bunch of teachers. And then so I agreed to do this and then six months pass and it’s another two more weeks, and then I have to give the talk and I suddenly realize, oh my God, what am I going to say to all these people?


So it’s too late for me to get out of it and to make it even worse, I’m now seriously dating almost engaged to a teacher. And so I had said to her, Hey, do you want to come to Nashville and watch me give a talk about teaching? So she’s like, yeah, of course, that’d be fabulous. So I go to Nashville and no joke, half an hour before I say to my fiance, you can’t come. This is just going to be a disaster. Because all I had done is gone through the course on the basic way, the sort of technical stuff about learning. I had gone through that course that I had been teaching undergraduates and picked out a few things that I thought teachers would find interesting, but my basic outlook was what in the world am I going to say to teachers about learning that they don’t already know?


So to my immense surprise, the teachers actually found it really interesting. They didn’t know all this stuff. They thought it was applicable to their own work. And that completely changed my career in an afternoon because I felt like, my gosh, if my field, my buddies have been doing a terrible job of communicating what we know to teachers and to the general public. And so I started writing for teachers and administrators and later for parents to try and let them know what scientists know about the mind and how that can be useful in improving children’s lives.

Dr. Sarah (08:22):

Oh my God, that is a really good story. The funny thing is, is I’m sitting here listening to it and I’m like, I relate so deeply to that trajectory with the parallel of attachment theory and child development because I too started out just being, I wrote my dissertation on attachment, but I was working with adults doing trauma work. I wasn’t really translating any of that to them, although I realized in retrospect I was, but I didn’t understand quite how I was when I became a mom and I started just for my own personal, how do I be a parent? And I was diving into the sort of parenting literature, but not the psychology parenting just like mom feeds and what’s the blog, the bump and things like that. And I was like, huh, wait, A lot of what I’m reading does not line up with what I actually know about attachment from my work as a psychologist.


And I was like, oh my gosh, these two worlds aren’t talking. They’re not talking. And if I could translate some of this stuff on attachment science that we know is true to parents, they would just feel more confident and have a better sense of like, oh, I can do this. This is not so life or death, all or nothing. If I take one toe out of line of this perfect parenting might destroy my child’s development and parenting out of such fear, but also sometimes focusing on things that don’t matter that much and missing the important things that matter. So I was like, okay, we got to translate this stuff. So that’s why I am nodding as you’re talking, I’m like, I so relate to this so much.

Dr. Dan (10:10):

And so you’ve experienced I’m sure very much what I’ve experienced, which is translation really brings its own set of challenges and its own set of judgements that you have to bring to the work. How well do scientists have to know something before you’re ready to say, parents, you should kind of do this. We really think this is best, and so on. I mean, it’s complicated and it’s something I’ve wrestled with daily as I’m sure you do.

Dr. Sarah (10:38):

Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m so curious. What are some of these things that you gave at that talk that you assume teachers would know and they were like, whoa, mind blown? Tell me more.

Dr. Dan (10:50):

Yeah, so as you say, some of them were things that we do know and some of them were sort of common myths that we know are not right, but are widely believed. So I’ll give you one of each. So let me start with a myth. Learning styles remains a big thing. It is just remarkable to me how resilient the idea of learning styles is. And it was actually not at that talk, but it was like maybe one or two talks later when I started speaking with teachers, just I used actually learning styles as something we all know is wrong, and I was using it to make another point. And so I sort of casually said, well, we know this idea is wrong, and the atmosphere in the room just became electric. And it was as if I had said, well, I love children too, especially with a nice basil cream sauce.


They really, the torches and pitchforks came out, but this is an idea that is very, very appealing. But scientists have known since the seventies, I mean these ideas, learning styles, theories first were proposed in the fifties post World War ii, and we’ve known for a very long time that this theory isn’t right. But I think part of the reason that it maintains such appeal is something kind of close to it is right styles are frequently confused with abilities. So something like the idea, well, some people are visual learners, some people are auditory learners, some people are kinesthetic learners, meaning they like to move their bodies in order to learn. That holds appeal because it sounds like you’re talking about ability, meaning I can remember things that are visual really well or I have a really good ear that is true, but it’s not the same thing as style.


If style meant the same thing as ability, you would just say ability. So style is supposed to mean, it’s not that I’m learning something visual, it’s that a visual presentation is going to be easier for me to acquire. So for example, if you were trying to just memorize a story that someone was reading to you, being an auditory learner would mean I can remember the particulars of the person’s voice, I can remember the intonation, I can remember the accent. They use sort of the auditory qualities that’s different than meaning. And so usually when you’re trying to remember a story, you’re trying to remember, meaning you’re not trying to remember the particulars of the person’s voice. So style is this idea that it’s the way that something comes to you rather than what the actual thing is that you’re trying to learn that makes a difference.


And this idea is very, very easy to test. You just take a hundred people and separate them into purportedly visual learners and auditory learners, and the visual learners watch a silent movie of a story. The auditory learners listen to a version of the story, and then some of the visual learners listen and some of them watch the story and so on. And then you see whether there’s this match that you expect, if I get a visual presentation, I’m a visual learner, I’m better off than if I’m a visual learner, I get an auditory presentation if there’s a mismatch. Those are the studies that have been done repeatedly and there’s been no effect found, but it’s very, very persistent myth.

Dr. Sarah (14:41):

So then what would the antidote to that be? What do we do find to be more accurate?

Dr. Dan (14:49):

So when it comes to something like visual versus auditory presentation, the thing to think about is not individual differences among children. Think about what the content is that you’re actually trying to get them to learn and have the delivery match that content. So if you’re trying to take an extreme example, if you’re trying to learn French and you’re trying to learn the particular pronunciation in French, it has to be auditory. If you’re a visual learner and I try and give you a visual presentation of a French accent, that is not going to go very far. So that’s an extreme example, but generally speaking, that’s true. Think about how the delivery is best going to support the aspect that you are trying to get the child to learn. And there are lots of these theories, by the way, and I think this principle applies pretty well. So there’s not just visual versus auditory. You can think about, well, do I want to present the whole thing at once, the big idea and then drill down to the details, or am I better off starting with little bitty details, doing a sequence of those and then trying to build the whole picture from there? Those are two different ways of approaching an idea. And you can think about, well, how would this content best be described?

Dr. Sarah (16:08):

So it’s a little bit more work because if you want to think about how to teach something, you can’t just sort of follow a script. You have to think about as the teacher, whether you’re an actual classroom teacher or you’re a parent trying to teach something in the home, whatever, we’re all teaching something. Somebody, even if you’re at work trying to convey an idea to a coworker or to your boss to try to get a raise, whatever, you’re teaching something. So what you’re saying is we have to think about what it is that we’re trying to teach and what’s the best mechanism for teaching that particular thing. And it’s probably going to change depending on what it is we’re trying to teach.

Dr. Dan (16:48):

Exactly, exactly. And you mentioned that it’s more work in one sense, it is in another sense, it’s easier because you’re no longer thinking, well, I’m confronted in a classroom situation. I’ve got 30 different kids who have, and they’re three different styles. So maybe I need to think of three different ways to present this material to make sure that everybody’s style is being appealed to.

Dr. Sarah (17:16):

Yeah, that makes sense. So we can debunk the idea of a learning style, but we’re not debunking the idea of learning abilities, right? Yeah, absolutely. How do you approach differences in ability in a classroom or in a family?

Dr. Dan (17:30):

Yeah, the biggest determinant of ability is usually how much you already know about the topic, the idea that intelligence is a thing. There’s just no doubt about it. There are, and this is sometimes we call this Bubby psychology. Bubby is Yiddish for grandmother. And so the idea psychologists coming to you and say, some people are kind of smart and some people are a little less smart. This is bubby psychology of course. And likewise, the idea that some people just find words a little bit easier and some people are a little bit better with numbers. There’s also ample support for that. And again, the difference is we’re talking about abilities, we’re not talking about styles. So that is definitely a thing. But along with that, a huge determinant of how easy it is for you to pick up new ideas is how much you already know about the same ideas.


So part of the reason that numbers people find math easy is they had a little bit of an advantage maybe from genetics or whatever it is, it just naturally came easier to them. And so they were more persistent when it came to math. They sort of stuck with those ideas. Their teachers and parents noticed, oh, they really seem to come alive when we talk about numbers and all that. And so they talk with their children about it more, and it just sort of keeps building. So by the time the child’s just in second or third grade, they sort of have this perception of themselves, I’m kind of a math kid, and that sort of keeps building on it. So when you think about what’s the main determinant of why people are good at something or not so good at something, how much they already know about it is by far the most important aspect of it.

Dr. Sarah (19:28):

So what I’m hearing you describe though, I’m hearing a second variable, and I don’t know if you would agree or control for that or whatever. So if we’re going to control for ability, so we’re going to factor, we’re going to take that out of the equation right now because assuming all the studies control for that, but amongst kids with the same similar abilities, so you’re saying their exposure to the topic, their familiarity, how much they already have seen and are familiar with this thing, math or history, whatever. But then there’s this other piece which sounds like confidence, like a belief that I can, and that’s coming probably in part from the self, but also from the environment. If you’re talking about a kid whose parents are like, Hey, they get this, let’s keep showing it to them, and now there’s this implicit and maybe even explicit communication from the environment saying, you’re good at this, and then an internalization of that, I’m good at this. And when we think we can do something, we’re much more willing to try and be much more willing to fail.

Dr. Dan (20:33):

Does that Absolutely right. So there are a couple, let me amplify on a couple of things you said there. First is sort of what the outcome is going to be, which you mentioned at the end, persistence is going to be the big outcome. So if you’re self-confident in something, you’re used to the idea, yeah, you know what? This is pretty hard, but I’m the kind of kid when I stick with it, it usually comes around, I’m usually able to get to it. And then think of the opposite, which is a child who’s confident is very fragile, very frail, they maybe can be convinced to take another try at this content that in the past they found difficult, but they’re very quick to conclude, well, I knew it, I’m not getting it right away. And so this is just not for me. So that’s going to be the outcome.


What is it that leads to that feeling of self-efficacy is the usual term. I’m capable. One factor is of course what I’ve seen myself do in the past. I’m an observer of my own behavior just like anyone else’s, so I can tell whether or not I’ve been successful. And a big part of that also is feedback. What my parents have indicated to me, what my teachers have indicated to me, and from a pretty early age, probably self-image takes this kind of hilarious turn around age four and five. And I mean I’m sure you all, you’ve experienced this when kids are really little, they’re hilariously overconfident about everything and for no reason at all. If you ask them, are you smart? Yes, I’m really smart. How do you know? I can say the ABCs. Oh, really? Yeah, A, B, and C. Look at all those ABCs I’m seeing.


They have no clue at all. But then when they start getting more socially adept at age five or six, they really start to see, oh, you know what? That kid actually runs much faster than I do and that kid can swing much better than I can. And that kid really notes reality sort of comes crashing down on their head. So at that point, the points of comparisons start to become really important as well. And first of all, if their parents are telling them, you are great at this, and other sources of evidence are telling them, no, you aren’t, then they start to be able to size it up themselves that the positive feedback I’m getting from my parents is not that meaningful. But then they’re also making their own comparisons and the comparisons really matter. So one of my daughters was really pretty good at math, but felt like she wasn’t because her best friend in the world was amazing at math, and so that was her point of comparison. And so she did turn a little bit into that kid who would try it a little bit and then say, I’m not getting it instantly. I must not be very good at this. So yeah, there are multiple sources of information that children are using in coming up with these judgments at how good I am at something.

Dr. Sarah (23:52):

So then how is someone who, whether a parent or a teacher or a therapist or someone who’s supporting a child to expand their perception of their own self-efficacy and also get better at using comparison as a helpful tool, like you said, I’m using it to collect data, but it’s not going to be the only thing that I use because my sample might be skewed, and I need to be able to understand that if I’m comparing myself to my best friend who’s incredibly gifted at math, I also want to be able to say, okay, she is way better at math than me. And also…

Dr. Dan (24:35):


Dr. Sarah (24:37):

I like this. It’s interesting to me, what are the other variables we want to help them use as data points to increase that sense of self-efficacy?

Dr. Dan (24:45):

Yeah, so clearly modeling this comparison and modeling what’s our target here? What’s our goal? Do you need to be amazing at everything? Obvious answer should be from a parent’s perspective, no, you don’t need to be amazing at everything and thinking about not just the goal of being great at it, but the goal of exploring the goal of exposing yourself to different ideas. One thing that I tell my own students as well as my children is if part of your goal in life is to have a career where you’re flourishing and you feel like you’re making a contribution, it may be the case that you don’t need to be great at anything. You need to be competent at several things. And so maybe you want to think, yeah, maybe math is not really for you. You can still be kind of okay at math and that’s going to make a positive contribution to whatever your main thing is, whatever you’re putting together as a way of seeing yourself as a contributor to the world.


I mean, I think of myself very much that way. I think as a writer and communicator, I’m okay. I don’t think I could make a splendid living or a splendid contribution doing that. And I think I’m the same way as a scientist, I’m fine as a scientist without false modesty. I did okay, got a PhD and so on. It’s really the combination of the two where I think I really have a contribution to make. And so I use myself as an example when I’m talking with my students and my children, it’s like, it’s okay. Maybe you’re not going to get all A’s in math. Math may just be a little piece of a contributor and all you need to whatever your thing is going to be. And so maybe B’s and C’s are just fine for you in math.

Dr. Sarah (26:50):

I like that perspective though, because I think it’s also teaching kids to zoom out and look at the whole and integrate because I do think we have a bad habit in our culture of fragmenting these things. And I think our education system unfortunately kind of does that too. It’s like everything’s kind of distilled down to these kind of arbitrary metrics like A or 60. What are those arbitrary markers mean? Sometimes they mean something, but they usually mean something more useful when they’re put into a context, a larger context.

Dr. Dan (27:30):

Yeah, absolutely. And as you say, fragmentation is I think a really aptt word here, and it’s not the way we think of tasks when we get outside the world. It’s not siloed into math and history and geography and so on. You’re in most careers, you’re sort of trying to bring things together, and that’s a hard thing for children to see. They haven’t experienced it and their day-to-day life is very much like someone saying you need to do better in mathematics and perhaps them telling themselves, I’m a bad kid, not excelling, and so on. And so yeah, it takes some work, I think, to help them understand what it would mean to take a step back and see how things come together.

Dr. Sarah (28:22):

So how would you recommend people do that? I feel like it’s so hard. We are getting these messages from the school and whether it’s, they might explicitly be saying, you want to have this sort of well-rounded education and these things don’t matter, but also here’s a C on your math test. You know what I mean? It’s contradictory doesn’t, the storylines don’t always match up so well. And then as parents, we’re probably hopefully telling our kids like, Hey, we’re going to look at this from a strengths-based perspective. We want to help support. If you find the things that light you up and not everything is going to do that, and that’s okay, but also I’m taking away the iPad this weekend. You didn’t get your homework finished or you didn’t, well, finishing homework is important, but what grade you got on the homework? So I guess as the role of the adult here, we’re seeing these contradictions in real time. How do we be mindful of that and then maybe not reinforce it?

Dr. Dan (29:28):

I think, yeah, I think there’s a very general lesson to be learned here, which is even though school takes up so much of our children’s day and so much of their energy, we have to and teaches them many important things. It doesn’t teach them everything. And so as parents, we need to be on the lookout for what does my child need that I don’t think they’re getting from school? So the problem that we’ve just been describing now, not every child, this is something that needs to be a priority for parents. We’re talking about the idea that a child is sort of getting stuck on the fact that, oh my gosh, I’m not very good at this particular subject and we want them to zoom out and see the bigger picture and so on. That might be important for some children, but not every child needs to learn that lesson.


But I think virtually every child there is something that a parent wants them to learn that they’re not getting. And so we need to think about what’s happening outside of school hours that will afford those lessons. So in the case of the type of lesson we were just talking about, I would think about having them involved in some sort of outside school experience that is going to help them experience firsthand, bringing together different types of knowledge into something that is valuable to them. So maybe it’s like model rocket club or something, who knows whatever it is based on the child’s interest. That does bring together lots of different ways of thinking about a problem model. Rocket club could be also great for teaching your child, it’s not always just you. Sometimes you’re working with others on a team, and that’s something children don’t do a lot of in school.


Maybe it’s the idea some kids need to learn, you know what, sometimes you try your hardest and it still doesn’t work out, but that’s okay and you need to learn how to try your hardest fail, pick yourself up and move forward. I’ve heard so many parents say, this is what sports taught my child. Because in regular classes you never learn the lesson. Sometimes I try my hardest and it still doesn’t work out. I still don’t fail. In many schools, the teachers make sure that that never happens. You can keep redoing assignments until you get whatever grade you want, especially true after the pandemic. So yeah, I think there’s a very broad lesson to be learned here that parents can be thinking you can’t do everything, so you need to be selective. Their time’s limited, your time is limited, your sanity is limited, but if there’s something you’re concerned about, you can think about what else you would like them to be doing outside of school hours.

Dr. Sarah (32:23):

And it might be a little bit of creative thinking on the part of the parent, what I’m hearing, it’s like we have to sort of like, okay, you’re looking at your child them, you can identify certain areas of skill deficits and they could be hard skills or soft skills. It could be math or it could be working with a team, but as a parent, it takes a little creativity and a little outside of the box thinking to sort of say, how can I help support building those skills in a more integrative way? And I love whether it’s model rockets or a sports team or even having your kid, my kids go to a project-based learning school and they do a ton of, and they’re really little right now, but when they get older, one of the things that the school does is has them interview parents that are about what they do for work and they go on field trips to parents’ work to see the different kinds of things that they do. And it’s so cool they get to see how it all integrates together and how it all comes together. And I think that’s really cool.

Dr. Dan (33:39):

Yeah, my children did a similar sort of thing in middle school. They did internships, they had week long internships where they would go and one of my children went and worked for a chocolatier. She was very interested in cooking and baking, and so she got to sort of apprentice at a c chocolatier shop. I mean, she saw all these different aspects, all these different skills that came together and also saw what it meant to from a 12 year old’s perspective, what it meant to run a small business and how challenging that was and so on. That was absolutely invaluable and was really just an indelible memory for her. Scared the hell out of her in some ways, but in a healthy way I think.

Dr. Sarah (34:26):

So as someone who’s working closely with schools and teachers and doing trainings and sharing all your research, what trends are you seeing? Are you seeing schools move more towards this way of integrated learning and working on making it less fragmented? Are you seeing that that’s not a problem that’s getting fixed? Does it vary? What do you see?

Dr. Dan (34:52):

I mean, right now, I don’t think many schools are focused on these issues right now. People are still picking up the pieces after the pandemic, and as you’ve probably read in the newspapers in the middle of an absentee crisis and chronic absenteeism is an enormous problem pretty much in every district in the country. Another problem that we’re facing, I sort of jokingly said something about, and now children are able to keep doing assignments until they get the grade they want. That was a policy that became really prevalent during the pandemic and I think was very appropriate in addition to the policy of you can turn something in at any point up until grades are calculated and there’s no late penalty. Those policies have continued in many schools and children seem much less resilient than they were pre pandemic. I don’t know of any real data on this, this is purely anecdotal, but it’s anecdotes I’m hearing absolutely everywhere. And most schools are focused on how can we get back to where we were in the early part of 2020 right now. And so big picture curricular issues, the one you mentioned I think is not even on their radar.

Dr. Sarah (36:25):

Which I guess I understand. I mean, you kind of have to triage. You can’t fix everything all at once. And if there’s a big giant gaping hole in the bucket, you got to mend that first before you…

Dr. Dan (36:39):

Yeah, kids not showing up, that’s a big hole in the bucket.

Dr. Sarah (36:43):

Yeah. And so what are you, as someone who’s like, I’m assuming weighing in on ideas for this or hope or maybe I feel like hopefully they’re asking people like you to weigh in on solutions for these kinds of things. What are things that we can do as obviously there’s so much you can do as a parent in your own home, but you also can be an advocate in your child’s school district. You can be an advocate in the PTA, you can be advocating in political spaces. What needs to happen right now for schools to get better?

Dr. Dan (37:21):

It is a great question, and it’s one that candidly, I do not know what the answer to that one is. It feels like there is sort of this implicit understanding that that’s just sort of what you do as you go to school and no one has thought to question it. And that implicit understanding sort of vanished with the pandemic because kids got used to just staying home and zooming into school, and in most cases as not really zooming in the computer might be on, but they’re doing something else. And so the kids who are not coming to school are usually kids who do not have one or both parents at home. Parents are out working at the time when children are supposed to get off to school. And so it’s up to the kids to just sort of get themselves to school and they’re not doing it. So how do you sort bring that sensibility back? This is something that that’s what schools are struggling with.

Dr. Sarah (38:29):

Yeah, that’s so hard. Like if the kids aren’t getting the support that they need to get into the space where then the supports exist, they get left behind. And I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect middle schoolers, high schoolers, these are kids to self-motivate all the time. I was going to say the prefrontal cortex just isn’t developed enough to be able to say, I really don’t want to, but I got to do it anyway, sometimes but not always.

Dr. Dan (39:13):

And I think that they might be able to do that for something that they understood to be of long-term value to them. And this is something that when you’re talking about middle schoolers and high schoolers, you’re talking about children who already have a pretty settled self-image about themselves vis-a-vis school. Do I see myself as a student that that’s an important part of my identity? Do I see school as a place of opportunity and excitement or do I see school as a place where I frequently fail? I frequently feel shame. So if that’s the situation and they suddenly pose the question to themselves, why am I going in the first place if it’s so terrible and there’s no one on the spot to tell me I must go, maybe I just shouldn’t go. The way they put things together is understandable, and it is a really, really difficult problem. It reminds me of the problem of children who are violent in classrooms, children who have outbursts and strike other students, strike teachers. The natural thing you think of in the case of children aren’t going to school, you think, well as truant officer just make ’em go, which is a very difficult and expensive, and B ultimately ends up not being very effective unless they’re going to come and drag them out of bed every day.

Dr. Sarah (40:48):

It’s a bandaid solution.

Dr. Dan (40:52):

And sort of the same thing as with a child who’s violent in the classroom. Well, you suspend them, well, that’s fine for a couple of weeks and then they come back to school, they’re even farther behind, they’re even angrier and so on. And so you do need to think about getting at root causes of these problems. And some of them psychologists understand much better. I’m thinking about violence in particular. There’s some reasons that children are violent in school that we have some idea of why that might be. And then there are others that we have some idea of why it might be and don’t really know what to do about.

Dr. Sarah (41:33):

Yeah, no, and all of what you’re saying makes me think kind of full circle to the beginning of our conversation, which is one of these variables that seems to predict resilience and keep going, even when I fail kind of attitude, is seeing myself as someone capable of this. And so maybe that is part of the solution, obviously kids who do not have that internalized sense that I could do this and there’s a better and bigger reason why I’m willing to do something in the short term that’s hard to get something in the longterm that I want, and I believe I can get it. So it’s worth trying. If those kids currently don’t have that internal sense, then we’ve failed them and we need to figure out how to rehabilitate that sense in them. But if you are a parent of a really young kid, what I’m hearing is supporting that internal sense of I can do things that are hard. I don’t have to succeed to feel successful. I can push myself in ways that don’t always feel easy in the short term, but man, in the long helping kids have that long view that is sort of prophylactic, like a preventative measure from getting to a place where they’re like, what is the point of this?

Dr. Dan (43:06):

Yeah, absolutely. And I think, so there are a couple of things I would say in response to what you said. One is the idea that a little bit of short-term frustration is something that I can learn how to cope with. I can learn strategies. I’m sure all of your listeners know about the marshmallow test and the…

Dr. Sarah (43:26):

Oh, if they don’t, will you give them a quick…

Dr. Dan (43:31):

Oh, goodness. Okay. Yeah. So very briefly, this is a work that started in the sixties, I guess, where children were shown a marshmallow or other attractive treat and we’re told, here’s this marshmallow. You are going to get to eat it, but I need to leave right now. I’m going to ask you not to eat this marshmallow while I’m gone. If you can wait when I come back, you’ll have another marshmallow. So there’ll be two marshmallows for you to eat, but I understand it’s pretty tempting if you really can’t stand it, ring this bell, I’ll come back in and you can eat the one marshmallow straight away. And so this research is commonly known because it turned out that children’s ability to resist the temptation of the marshmallow and delay their gratification so that they would later get to turned out to be predictive of a number of things, including rates of incarceration and success in school and so on. And there’s lots and lots of other work about the relationship of self-control at an early age being predictive of good things, and it’s sort of intuitive, right? This is verging on Bubby psychology, maybe that people who can control their impulses tend to do well in life. They have more friends, all kinds of good outcomes.


So yeah, you certainly can, I don’t know that I would put marshmallows in front of my kids, but I would be mindful of the idea that there are opportunities even for very young children, to let them endure a little bit of frustration to see that they can come to the other side of it. This is something that I talked about a lot in my book on reading that it’s okay for children to be a little bit bored sometimes because being bored is one way you figure out how to sort of entertain yourself and make your own fun. So that’s the first thing to think about is resilience in the shorter term. Then the other thing that you mentioned is helping children see the long view, and I think that is worth mentioning because it is something that we want them to understand. We want them to know that it’s important to us.


I would also encourage parents to keep your expectations of how effective that going to be. I would keep your expectations modest or even low. It’s very hard for children to understand that sort of distant future. It’s also the case that even adults, when there’s the promise of a reward that’s very far off, that reward has less sort of rewarding oomph than a reward that we expect to get in the near term. This is one of the reasons that delaying gratification is so difficult. So another way that parents can think about it is the children can still get the reward in the short term, but that reward is going to be feeling good on their own part for having conquered something that they thought was going to be difficult. And then also, of course, your regard, your appreciation of the fact that they tackled something that was difficult. And this is part of them understanding like, yeah, I’m probably never going to be the best in the class at English, but I try hard and when I try hard, that’s recognized by my teacher, that’s recognized by mom and dad, and that feels good. And that sort of builds this general idea, I should feel good when there’s something that’s difficult for me and I do my best at it, and it comes out okay, not great, but okay is just fine in those circumstances.

Dr. Sarah (47:33):

Yeah, yeah. What I’m hearing there is praising the effort rather than the outcome.

Dr. Dan (47:39):

Right? Carol Dweck is smiling somewhere. Exactly. Right.

Dr. Sarah (47:45):

I think I that that is fortunately something that I think is more of a, people are understanding that idea more in the mainstream that I feel like has gotten well translated. Maybe I live in a bubble.

Dr. Dan (48:00):

In a bubble of people who are interested in this thing.

Dr. Sarah (48:02):

Or what is it called? Echo chamber of people who do talk about that a lot. But I think parents are starting to understand more the reason why. The reason why if we praise the effort or we reflect on the effort versus exclusively on the outcome, we’re helping a kid understand there’s more than just the end result. The whole process that goes into the end result is factored into what about this feels like success.

Dr. Dan (48:35):

Absolutely. And since we’re into it, I’ll mention for parents one of the ways that, so we’re talking about Carol Dweck’s idea of mindset, which is really specifically a theory about how people who are successful deal with setbacks. In particular, it’s motivation in the face of a setback. And so one of her pieces of advice is to praise process rather than praise outcome. An important part of process is effort, trying really hard, but that’s not all there is to it. And one of the things that Carol has pointed out, big concern of hers is the way that mindset was being implemented in classroom was sort of runaway emphasis on effort that ends up backfiring because a child would fail and a teacher would say something like, well, that’s okay, Sarah, you tried, and that sounds like very clearly, I think you suck at this. And so I’m just saying, I’m giving you this consolation prize of praising your effort. And what Dweck says ought to happen is, yeah, praise your effort. Listen, that didn’t really work out at all, Sarah, but you did try really hard. Let’s figure out why your effort didn’t pay off. What did you do wrong? That’s supposed to be part of it also. And then let’s brainstorm together things that you might try differently next time. So the mindset idea is I think very powerful and very helpful, but you need to have the complete package. You can’t just focus on effort.

Dr. Sarah (50:18):

Yeah, I love that. And I think that that’s so critical. And what I hear in that too, the voice of the person saying, Hey, you didn’t succeed at this task, not life, but the task and you put work in and the work you put in had value. So let’s look at it. And what I’m saying in all of that is, I believe you will be able to figure out something that feels good here.

Dr. Dan (50:44):


Dr. Sarah (50:44):

And so our ability as the adult to reflect to the child some sense of confidence in their ability to do it, not necessarily do it correctly, do it successfully, do it right, but do it work on it. That is so much more important than, and I think it’s so funny. Yeah. Everything gets so reduced to soundbites and then we lose the meat. And so yeah, we all hear this phrase like, praise effort, not outcome, but what you did an amazing job just now of is saying, okay, but what does that actually really mean in a way that’s useful for the child? What’s our goal?

Dr. Dan (51:31):

Exactly. And you elaborated on part of this that I wasn’t very clear about that I think is really important, which is the implicit message to the child, the implicit message being like, I have confidence that you can do this. Where praising effort in the consolation prize way that I did, well, it didn’t work out, but you tried, clearly indicates I don’t think you can do it. Whereas saying like, wow, that didn’t quite get it, did it, and I know you can do better. That sort of encapsulates what is I think, very general and very portable parenting advice. You want high expectations, confidence that the child can meet those expectations. And then also the promise of support, I want you to try, but I’m here if you need help, I’m going to be here with you.

Dr. Sarah (52:24):

If you need help, I’m going to be here with you. I think that that’s like, yes, scaffolding at its best.

Dr. Dan (52:31):

One of my favorite examples of this actually doesn’t come from a parenting example. It comes from a boss. And this was someone who had been such a successful principal. He was now coaching other principals, and he went in one time to give, this was actually a teacher he was giving feedback to, but he watched the lesson and he said he had carefully curated a good relationship with this teacher so that there was trust. And he said, that was terrible. I love you, but that was terrible. And then he said, what are we going to do? And so he started off with you pick up the ball from here. I’m posing the question to you. What’s next? But he phrased it as we, and so it was like, we’re going to work on this together, but you have to start. And I think that’s a pretty good way for parents to think about it. Also, even at a young age, you can ask your child, what do you think we ought to do here? They can start, but you make it plain. I’m here to help.

Dr. Sarah (53:37):

Yeah, I think that’s so helpful. So, you said that you started off just studying the stuff and not feeling like it could be applied in a way that was useful, and I feel like this conversation is so useful and applicable. So it seems really great talking to you about this. If people want to get your book or learn more about your work, how can they find you? How can they get in touch?

Dr. Dan (54:08):

Well, I’m all over the web, I’m afraid. So if you Google Dan Willingham, you will find me. I do have a website, danielwillingham.com if you’re interested in TikTok. I’m a TikTok phenomenon now. I actually have a bunch of videos that are all based on my latest book. So there are videos that are directed towards mostly high school and college students about how to study. And I’m also on Facebook.

Dr. Sarah (54:40):

Amazing. All right. Well, we’ll link all that in our show notes so that people can find you. Thank you so much for coming on. I have so many more questions for you. I feel like I could talk to you for two more hours about this.

Dr. Dan (54:51):

Well, I’ll have to come back.

Dr. Sarah (54:52):

Please. I would love that so much.

Dr. Dan (54:55):

Yeah, it’s been great fun. Thank you so much.

Dr. Sarah (55:02):If you enjoyed listening to this conversation, I want to hear from you, share your thoughts and your feedback with me by scrolling down to the ratings and review section on your Apple Podcast App or whatever app you’re listening on. And let me know what you think of this episode or the show in general. Your support means the absolute world to me, and just a simple tap of five stars can make a real impact in how the show gets reached by parents everywhere. So thank you so much for listening and don’t be a stranger.

170. Debunking the myth of learning styles: What the research actually says are the best ways to teach our children with Dr. Dan Willingham