Sunday, October 10, 2021

Still Off the Shelf:
Why Don't Students Like School?


At the beginning of this year's summer vacation from all things educational, I sat down on the patio of my favorite coffee shop, book in hand, to read up on some psychological tips for educators. Summer vacation is now long over, and I am still mulling over the pages of advice from Daniel Willingham in Why Don't Students Like School?

As I did the last time I mentioned this book, I can't help but apply his advice for K-12 teachers to the world of genealogical education. Forget that; I think even of how I work on my own family trees when I read his explanations of various psychological studies. 

This week, I've finally been heading into the home stretch, in the chapter on how experts function, and why we can't expect rank beginners to think like experts in their field...yet. Willingham began by borrowing a concept from Angela Duckworth's idea of "grit"—that there are two necessary personality components for success, which she labeled as persistence and passion for a long-term goal. The key was not simply to isolate the necessity for long stretches of hard work—that would be the persistence part of the equation—but to have the want-to to do what the student loves.

Having explained Duckworth's concept of grit—persistence and passion—Willingham continues, "Gritty or not, you won't become an expert until you've put in your hours—that's another implication of the importance of practice." From there, he launches into his ode to the practice that yields expert skill.

The capacity for sustained work, the topic of another book I've devoured lately, helps us move from the fumbling practice of novices to the deeper-thinking levels of expertise. At first, we struggle with the basics of our pursuit—whether something as lofty as learning calculus, or the less-traveled path of the family historian—but as we constantly repeat the basic steps, we eventually develop a sixth sense about handling the matters that matter most.

After dozens of repetitions of documenting the facts on a pedigree chart, or fleshing out a family group record, we become more astute at sorting out the name twins among our ancestors' cousins, or reconstituting just what must have happened to cause an ancestor to make the moves he did throughout his life. We get a sense of which episodes might have had an as-yet-undiscovered prelude and hone the knack of uncovering such hidden stories.

When the simpler tasks are practiced so many times that they become second nature to us, freeing up our mind to consider more complicated issues in our ancestry, when our minds begin to take on the "abstract, functional relationships among problems that are key to solving them," as Willingham puts it, we somehow move from the novice level of skills toward that of the expert.

You may have been "doing genealogy" for years but may not think of yourself as "expert." However, at some point in all the hours you've spent chasing your ancestors, there comes a turning point where you reach for more. Some of us negotiate that corner by attending classes—society meetings, conferences, specializing institute programs—while others may even be rigorously self-taught. No matter how we arrive—thanks to that persistence plus passion—we somehow step up onto a plateau where that sixth sense of experience helps us know how to support our proof arguments with solid evidence.

Or, as author Daniel Willingham observed,

Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a nonexpert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise. Ralph Waldo Emerson put it more artfully: "Every artist was first an amateur."

Next time you realize you've been chasing yet another ancestor in your PJs and bunny slippers past three in the morning, take heart. You're not only hot in pursuit of your research goal in a fascinating avocation, you're adding line by line to your level of expertise.



  1. Were you looking in my window the other night? The night I stayed up way way too late chasing an marriage record that was an actual photocopy of the record book, with clear printing, that misspelled the applicants names so badly I was sure that I had finally located what happened to a long lost gg aunt. Nope, it was her older sister and her husband with their first, middle and last names misspelled. I will look at those hours as adding to my expertise.

    1. Yes, absolutely, Miss Merry: those hours count for something...although how many details can a record get wrong?! With paper chases such as that, you certainly gain an expertise through gaining a sixth sense of what fits and what doesn't.


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