Daniel Willingham presents at the Benjamin Cluff Jr. Lecture

Daniel Willingham presented the 2017 McKay School Benjamin Cluff Jr. lecture on March 9, 2017. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, spoke to campus and Cluff family attendees on “How Can K–12 Teachers Use Psychological Science?”

Willingham told how a new teacher explained to him that she was surprised to find she had a “spinner” in her class. None of the seminars or lectures during her schooling prepared her for the situation, leaving her momentarily conflicted with how to properly respond to the student who would randomly stand up and start spinning during class.

“Teachers are always going to be confronting situations that are completely unexpected in the classroom,” said Willingham.

He explained that teacher’s reactions to these unanticipated situations come directly from the “mental model of the learner.” Willingham defined this model as “what teachers believe is true about how kids think, what their cognition is like, what their emotional lives are like, [and] what their motivational [lives are] like.”

Willingham spoke about the development of the mental models for teachers during their training. According to Willingham, there are similarities between the way practitioners and researchers learn, which is the root of the problem.

Scientists have three basic tools: observations, theories, and epistemic assumptions. These three statements are generally found in teacher education programs that practitioners participate in.

Based on his research, Willingham suggested that teachers and practitioners learn better from observations alone. He shared findings from a study done by the American Federation of Teachers, stating that the number one complaint teachers have about their training is that it isn’t useful to them—it is too theoretical.

“Observations . . . are really important for teachers to know. Things that [teachers] know are generally true of students,” said Willingham.

Willingham is currently a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, where he has taught since 1992. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and his PhD in cognitive psychology from Harvard University. He is the author of four books, as well as the writer of the column “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” in the American Educator magazine. He was recently appointed by President Obama to serve as a member of the National Board for Education Sciences.

Congratulations to the recipients of this year’s Benjamin Cluff Jr. Award:

From left to right: Blake Hansen, Barbara Smith, James Judd

Blake Hansen, Counseling Psychology and Special Education, Benjamin Cluff Jr. Award for Excellence in Educational Research.

Barbara Smith, Counseling Psychology and Special Education, Benjamin Cluff Jr. Award for Excellence in Educator Preparation.

James Judd, Wasatch County School District, Benjamin Cluff Jr. Award for Excellence in Public School Support.


Writer: Camilla Nielsen

Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922