Today, I’m talking about teaching as seen through the lens of cognitive science.
Cognitive science in education is the study of how the mind learns.
I’m going to use as my main reference this book by Prof Dan Willingham.
It’s called ‘Why don’t students like school?’
The answer to this question, from a cognitive science perspective is that we do not align our teaching enough with how students learn.
This book has been acclaimed by leading Educationalists such as Dylan Wiliam, as well as the Schools Minister Nick Gibb. It lies in that great space where government policy and the expertise of those involved in Education, overlap. A space that in my view, is getting larger and larger.
I’m nailing my colours to the mast and saying that this book is a must-read for every teacher and it should influence all our teaching practice. My view is that knowledge of cognitive science in Education is a necessary part of being a teacher.
I wouldn’t however go so far as to say it is a sufficient view of Education, clearly there are aspects of teaching that do not fall under its gaze. Also, I understand that some people disagree with some of the arguments in this book and I’m happy to listen to those disagreements. I’ll send round the text of my talk afterwards and anyone who wants to disagree with some, or all, of what I say here: I welcome those responses.
To the first point
There is a qualitative difference in how novices and experts learn.
In other words, the way that one thinks about a subject is substantially different when one is a novice to when one becomes an expert.
Students at school are novices. There may be the odd exception, perhaps a student who has achieved expertise on a musical instrument outside of school, but these students will be the exception and should be taught as exceptions. If we rounded it to the nearest percent, 100% of students are novices.
This is significant for us, especially as secondary school teachers, because we are experts in the subjects we teach. Studying a degree in our subjects has given us the mental representations, or schemas, that our students simply do not and cannot have.
This gap between our knowledge of our subjects and the students’ knowledge is sometimes called the curse of knowledge. The more we know about our subject the harder it can become for us to walk in the shoes of a student and view what we are teaching through the eyes of a novice.
Novices have less background knowledge than experts and they also approach problems differently. If I have a problem in maths, I can take an overview of the subject to help me see where I’ve gone wrong whereas novices can’t see the wood for the trees so to speak.
To overcome the curse of knowledge and try and see how our students are going to learn it is helpful to look at what we are teaching and then break that topic down into smaller and smaller parts to see all the components involved. Some people call this process atomisation.
For example, anyone who’s done a maths degree can solve any GCSE problem about Similarity in under a minute, but when I atomised the steps I needed to teach this topic to Y10s, I realised there were 22 components that I wanted to cover. Seven of these I would have expected to them to have learned in previous years and I wanted to recap, and this left me with 15 new components that I wanted to explicitly teach and model and give worked examples on for this topic in about 10 lessons.
The implication here for teaching is that a problem solving approach to teaching, or minimally guided teaching where students learn things for themselves, or derive things for themselves, or do research for themselves, is not helpful for novices. The implication is that students need explicit teaching on new concepts and topics, topics which have been broken down into the components that make up the whole, and these components need lots of good explanations, modelling and worked examples from the teacher.
The second point
People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers.
From a cognitive science perspective the human mind is designed to avoid thinking as much as possible. The brain devotes much more of its energy on seeing or moving, for example, than thinking. Compared to our ability to see and move, thinking is slow, uncertain and effortful.
So, if we’re not designed for thinking, how do we do so many complex things each day?
The answer is very simple: most of the things we do each day, we’ve done before and learned already. If we encounter a new situation, we just think about what we did in a similar situation before and do that.
From a cognitive science perspective we are using our long term memory. Our long term memory stores all the facts we know, but also our strategies to guide what we should do. For example, it holds the names of our friends, the names of famous historical people, how to drive a car (if we drive), how to handle minor disputes between Y7s, how to cook dinner, how to respond appropriately to those in authority, and so on. For almost all the time, we are operating on autopilot, using our accumulated knowledge of the world stored in our long term memory.
One of the best examples is driving. It is a complex, unnatural thing to do that takes a lot of effort, but once we have learned it, we can drive singing along to songs or daydreaming about the weekend, a complex skill just becomes automatic when we have learned it. And when we have learned something it becomes part of our long term memory.
So thinking is not natural, but we are naturally curious. I would think most of us here want to know the works of Shakespeare or to speak more than one language, or to be able to play a musical instrument, and I think that’s true of students too, they’re interested in thinking.
From a cognitive science perspective, curiosity can be capitalised on when learning is successful, so for example, when one successfully solves a problem, the brain may reward itself with a small dose of dopamine. The other side to this is that unsuccessful thinking, such as trying to work through a problem that results in one getting completely lost strangles curiosity, and thinking about work that is trivial results in no pleasurable reward. This is the Goldilocks principle: we need to pitch our work as just challenging enough for success. If students routinely find the work we set too easy or too difficult then their natural curiosity is likely to be dampened.
My contention is that we often, unwittingly, make thinking far too hard for students, and this is the result of a lack of understanding of cognitive science. Willingham has a very simple model of the mind that can help us, he calls it ‘just about the simplest model of the mind that is possible.
In terms of how our students learn, the environment is our classroom and in particular our teaching. The long-term memory is, as we’ve seen, everything we’ve learned. And the crucial third part of the picture? That’s the working memory. It’s my view that teaching is fundamentally about getting students to transfer what we are teaching from the working memory to the long term memory. The oft-repeated quote that is relevant here is ‘if nothing has changed in the long term memory, nothing has been learned‘.
I’ll say that again: teaching is about getting students to transfer what we are teaching from their working memory to their long term memory.
As teachers, first we have to put what we want to be learnt into students’ working memory, lets focus on this. The working memory is where we do our thinking, and as I’ve said, we are hardwired to avoid this if we can. For the vast majority of the time we rely on our long term memories. When we are introduced to new concepts, and this is what students experience every day, we take in the new information and combine it with what we know from our long term memories and try to make sense of it.
Our working memories are very limited in terms of what they can think about at one time.
Our long-term memory is effectively infinite in size, but our working memories can handle only about 5 – 9 things at one time.
The implications of this on our teaching are huge. The very limited size of our working memories means that new concepts should be taught in small chunks. Trying to take in too much new information at one time leads to what is often called cognitive overload. My view is that students very often experience cognitive overload due to the difficulty for us as teachers in seeing new concepts from a novice’s point of view, the curse of knowledge.
Not only should new information be taught in small chunks, it should be made as clear and as explicit as possible, so that students have the best chance of taking it on board. Any extraneous details such as unnecessarily flashing power points, or obscure jargon, or trying to get the students to discover the information for themselves only serve to reduce the chance that students will grasp what you are explaining to them. This is also why modelling and worked examples are so useful when students encounter new information. Thinking about new concepts is not natural, it’s difficult and it needs a lot of care when delivered by a teacher.
The last point I want to discuss today is how information in the working memory transfers to the long term memory and can then be said to have been learned. We have all had the experience where students have grasped well what we are teaching during the lesson and yet three weeks later can’t even remember being taught it in the first place.
There are two solutions to this that might sound obvious but I want to suggest often get overlooked.
- Practice. It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice. I’ll suggest that practice of what has been taught in a small chunk, in silence is of huge benefit to the students; and
- Retrieval practice. In other words, regular low stakes testing of what has already been taught. All subjects do revision before exams, but what I am talking about is testing students either verbally, or, for example, with questions on the board as they enter the classroom that test not just last lessons work, but last months, last terms and last years – any work that you know they will have been taught already.
Let me sum up what I have spoken about in terms of how it can affect how you teach your lessons.
The last thing I mentioned was retrieval practice, the low stakes questioning that assists in transferring new concepts from the working memory to the long term memory: this can be done at the start of every lesson. Students come in and do a recap quiz.
The fact that thinking is not easy and the working memory is very limited combined with the qualitative difference in how novices and experts learn has huge implications for how we introduce new concepts to our students. We need to be aware of the curse of knowledge and attempt to look at what we’re teaching through the eyes of a novice, breaking it down into small components which we teach clearly and explicitly, model and give worked examples on.
Transferring new concepts into the long term memory requires extensive practice. Long periods of silence with students practicing what you have just taught them is favourable in the extreme in terms of learning.
This manifests itself as an alternative 3 part lesson:
- Recap quiz
- Clear, explicit explanation, modelling and worked examples