The implications of cognitive science for teachers – an introduction

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.

Why by 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.

model of the mind Willingham

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.

  1. 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
  2. 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:

  1. Recap quiz
  2. Clear, explicit explanation, modelling and worked examples
  3. Practice

Students must be Deferential to Teachers

Every student should be deferential to every school teacher.

Irrespective of personalities; regardless of characteristics, there are no exceptions to this maxim. 

Polite and respectful are the characteristics of a deferential relationship and this is exactly how I want my children to treat their teachers. It’s what we all want for our children. 

There’s an argument that I could replace the word deferential with obedient. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise but at the moment I think the word obedient takes things unnecessarily far. I think the difference is that obedience is unthinking, uncritical compliance whereas deference confers a respect for students to think for themselves and perhaps disagree but still comply through respect for the teacher’s authority.

Substituting the idea of cooperation for deference is another argument. For me this unnecessarily and unhelpfully undermines the authority of the teacher. The result of a well managed classroom may look like cooperation but to get to that point it is almost certain that the desires of the students will have been suppressed in favour of the commands of the teacher.

Let’s not beat about the bush here, teachers have a responsibility to lead in a classroom, and this is for the benefit of all students. In my experience, disrespectful behaviour is still seen as acceptable by a large number of students and this is, to my mind, a disaster for everyone’s children. 

So what is a simple clear message that can suffuse the Education world? It’s deference. All students should be deferential to all school teachers. 

Is my teaching practice rooted in ideology?

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist

– John Maynard Keynes (1936)

I wonder if it’s possible to be a teacher free from the influence of ideology; a pragmatist maybe

I was taught on my PGCE by a wonderful person, perhaps the kindest of anyone I’ve met. Blown away is how I would describe my experience of learning to teach. Seduced by the art of pedagogy as it was presented to me, I retain an enormous enthusiasm for teaching and learning ten years on.

How Children Fail by John Holt was not a part of the course, but somehow I came to get a copy and the compassion for children evident in that book augmented my views about Education. He had a precept for teaching that held sway with me:

Learning is not the product of teaching; learning is the product of the activity of learners

– John Holt (1984)

Recently I had some painful thoughts reading an interesting blog by Tim Taylor. He quotes the 1967 Plowden Report:

In a single class there may be children who are regularly and perhaps brutally thrashed at home

– quoted in this blog by Tim Taylor

That’s difficult to read isn’t it.

I am with everyone who stands for the rights of children. I am intensely opposed to corporal punishment, and to think it was outlawed only as recently as 1986 sends shivers down my spine.

I’m a teacher, and I have some influence in the way that my students are treated. I want it to be with dignity and respect. I want students to have the freedom to learn the best that has been thought and said, to go to school knowing they will be in a calm, safe environment, and to celebrate our shared cultural history. I want them to know the plays of Shakespeare, to know this history of our country and the world, and to know the details of our scientific progress. Our children have a wonderful intellectual inheritance.

I’m interested in the best way to achieve this, and surprisingly to me, I’ve come to the conclusion that the way that I was taught on my PGCE, the way that John Holt advocates, is wrong. For example, the idea that students learn best by realising things for themselves through an activity had been presented to me on my PGCE as self-evident. I have spent innumerable hours attempting to come up with clever Starter activities in which students would come to realise what I wanted them to learn by engaging in the activity. This was hard work, but much worse: I believe it was a worse way for students to learn a concept than I if I had told them clearly at the beginning of the lesson.

I have to come to realise that my introduction to teaching on my PGCE was firmly rooted in Progressive Ideology. I accept that and there is a huge body of work in Sociology to back up this Ideology. And there is a tradition, of which John Holt is an example, of teachers who believe it’s the best way to teach. The problem I have here is that I was unaware at the time that this way of teaching was part of an Ideology and I wasn’t introduced to any competing ideologies. It is perhaps a bit like being taught a course on political science by conservatives where only conservatism is studied.

And this is where my belief that ideologies in Education should be explicitly acknowledged and discussed comes from. It was unknown to me, but ideas and ideals that had been presented to me as self-evidently the best way to teach have actually been argued about for centuries. There is a historical debate in Education between Traditionalism and Progressivism.

So, I come back to my question about pragmatism, is it possible to just be a pragmatic teacher, free from ideology, who just does what works? 

I certainly believe it’s common to see oneself as such. I was one, and the reason I was was because I was simply unaware that I had been introduced to anything apart from the right way to teach. It is true that these ideologies are rarely talked about by teachers in the staffroom and this is because it is impossible to free oneself from a system of thought if there seems to be no alternative. This is why I think it is damaging to affect that these ideologies are unimportant.

Tim Taylor (who, let me be clear, is someone I have a lot of time for) argues here that ‘most people are somewhere in the middle, neither entirely traditionalist nor entirely progressive’ and I agree. The difference I have with his view is that teachers are not choosing different tenets from the two ideologies, for the most part teachers are unaware of the ideologies, so what they are doing is blindly going with what seems to work for the students. The problem with this is that what one thinks works is very much dependent on the ideology that one’s views are rooted in. This is made apparent in Ofsted inspections of the recent past. Daisy Christodoulou, in her book 7 Myths of Education, analyses Ofsted’s subject reports of good practice and finds that the overwhelming majority of lessons that are praised are ones that I will infer as rooted in Progressive Ideology, that is to say they follow Holt’s precept.

I have experienced this. A few years ago, when my Progressive teaching was at its apotheosis I had a lesson observation from a well regarded consultant who was working with our school for a year. I was warned by my colleagues that this person would do me no favours and was extremely tough. The feedback came through and I had got a 1 (Outstanding) on every aspect of the lesson with the comment that it was ‘a stunning learning experience’. Now, it would be extremely difficult for me to start to think that actually this wasn’t the right way to teach if I was not exposed to alternative analyses of teaching practices wouldn’t it? It is clear to me now that that lesson was not the best way to teach the students but I would not have reached that conclusion had I not been made aware of the differing ideologies.

I know that all teachers want to pass on knowledge, we also all want our students to be treated with dignity and to come out of school with healthy self-esteem. It is in our ideologies that we differ in how this is best achieved. Lets get the debate about traditionalism and progressivism in teaching out into the open so that every teacher can have the knowledge to choose what they think is the right way to teach. 



Forging good relationships

Students relationship with the school

Tweeted by @sirnewmalot on the 14th July 2017

You cannot make children respect or heed you or view your directions with value. But you can build it over time if you are reliable, resolute, obviously care about them academically and as people, but are stubborn enough to be consistent and retain high expectations wherever happens. Don’t try to curry favour with children. Don’t bribe them; don’t fawn or beg them to behave. Build a culture where they want to behave. Be the teacher.

Getting Behaviour Right from the Start by Tom Bennett

 It seems clear to me: either we expect students to listen to us instantly, to follow our instructions, and we back that expectation up, or we don’t expect it. Either we expect respect for teachers, or we allow students to talk back, challenge, lie to our faces, or follow instructions only after a sullen delay.

Respect by Hin-Tai

Good relationships with students are not a necessary precursor to good classroom management. And ‘good relationships’ is itself a nebulous term. Here, I try to unpick the sense from the nonsense, with implications for every teacher, not just ones at the start of their careers. 

One of my favourite former colleagues, Dan, was a brilliant mathematician. He’d gone to Cambridge to study maths, and was in his 30s when he worked with us, clearly he’d kept up his intellectual interests after university and I would often encounter interesting ideas for the first time through him. He came to the school on supply, having not managed to keep down a permanent job. (Please note that this was at a previous school to the one I am working in now.)

One of the things about Dan was that he dressed unusually. He also had an unusual manner. His looks lent themselves to him quickly gaining a pejorative nickname with the students, an unpleasant use of mockery that I have no time for. Incredibly to me, I heard some staff using the same name about him, how pathetic of those staff.

I learnt a lot of maths from him, he was knowledgeable and would think about my questions and then give me nice, clear explanations. He was a natural teacher. And at the end of the term? He wasn’t asked to come back.

Were his lessons terrible? No. He was diligent and hard working and he was always interested in improving his practice. He could have improved, as we all can, and he had the same problems as all staff do who join a new school, but the lessons were fine and his classes’ results were in line with the rest of the departments. So why didn’t we keep him?

I believe it’s because people thought he was weird. People thought how is he going to build strong relationships with the students? Our students were denied the expertise of a brilliant mathematician because of the idiotic view that teachers have to forge good relationships with their students prior to them learning. This is the wrong way round, as Tom Bennett says in the quote at the start, good relationships with students are the product of good teaching.

The quoted tweet at the start is key here. If the students expected to behave and do their best for every teacher, I have no doubt that Dan would have won them over. I have no doubt that he would have become extremely popular. Kids like teachers who teach them well; who know a lot and can communicate it well. Forging good relationships is about the relationship between the school culture and the student. If the culture is clearly: students must respect their teachers and do their best in lessons, then we don’t have to worry about supply teachers or teachers who initially look a bit different.

If the culture is not expressed like this clearly, then teachers can still use the culture of ‘school’ in general terms. We can connect students with the culture of needing to do their best, to learn our subjects well, to be knowledgeable, to form good habits and to respect our expertise.

Our expectations as teachers, as Hin-Tai says must be that they do what we want them to do. Students get a great deal out of the Education system, our relationships with them must be built on respect for the institution of school.

Clever, thoughtful, plausible ideas can be wrong

It is galling to think that someone who has given no thought to an issue can be right whilst another person who has spent years thinking about that same issue can be wrong, but this is the case.

Let me give you an example: on my PGCE I was told that rather than memorise large amounts of small chunks, students found it easier to attempt to understand big ideas that incorporated these small chunks. So, instead of breaking down new ideas into small chunks, I should teach the big idea holistically, thereby reducing the amount of seemingly arbitrary knowledge students would have to remember and increasing their conceptual understanding. My PGCE tutors were good people, who had put a tremendous amount of thought into teaching: they were well read and had clear, sound arguments for making this case.

Cut to me working in a school on my placement, and teachers in my department telling me that the way I was going wrong in my teaching was that I wasn’t ‘breaking it down’ enough. When I asked way I should teach like that, I was told, with some exasperation, that it was obvious: kids need to learn things in small chunks and master those small chunks before moving on. The only argument they had for their way, beyond their own observations, was that this was the way everyone had always taught it. A line of argument that I came to despise.

Now, I think teaching in small chunks is definitely the right way for students to learn, and that my PGCE tutors were wrong. It’s taken well researched arguments and articles such as Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction to convince me, and I have changed my mind.

The people who had put a huge amount of reason and effort into determining what was right turned out to be wrong, and those who had just done thing because that was the way they’d always been done were right. I think that this is:

  1. Counter-intuitive and plays against the logic we all like to think lies behind the things we do; and
  2. Very uncomfortable to realise.

The line of argument that I despise? This is the way we’ve always done it has validity and I am wrong to despise it. If a method of teaching has always been used, then there are probably very good reasons for this, even if the person using the argument can’t explain what these are.

All this brings me to debates in Education. As uncomfortable and unpleasant as it may be, people who have put a great deal of thought into their views on Education, and have come up with clever, plausible arguments can be completely wrong. Now, if I put myself in the shoes of one such person: a person with reason, thought, logic and evidence behind my ideas; ideas that have been championed and supported by colleagues. And then someone comes along and tells me that I’m wrong? I’m going to suggest that it will be very hard for me not to be affronted, even offended by this challenge.

And this is where Educational debates can become uncomfortable. My view is that the standard response to this challenge is for the person who is challenged to first seek to show that they’re right, and then if this fails, to show that they are at least partially right.

I think that when people want to show that they are at least partially right, they are using the fallacy of the golden mean. That is, when there are two distinct views, the fallacy is that the truth lies somewhere between them. This is very rarely, if ever, the case and the reality is that someone will be right and someone will be wrong. In my example, it cannot be partially right that students learn better by being taught a concept in a holistic way: either they learn better by being taught new information in small chunks or they don’t, there’s no middle compromise to assuage the feelings of everyone involved.

It’s not pleasant, I wish it wasn’t true, but sometimes even with a huge amount of intelligence, good intentions and reasoned arguments one can still be wrong.


A lot of talk about teaching is nonsense.

Is that harsh? Can I not say that?

I’ve had CPD in a past school that was pure, unadulterated nonsense. The educational consultant presented nothing based on evidence or research and mainly said the word engage quite loudly over and over. This caused a lot of fun to be had at the pub later, but clearly there are serious implications to it as well.

If some of my former colleagues had brought into the consultant’s ideas then I have no doubt they would be taking a backwards step in their practice.

Should this not be called out?

All opinions about teaching are not equally valid.

If there are 100 ideas about how to teach it does not follow that the best way is somewhere in the middle. The best ways to teach are those based on what has been proven to work.

Giving credence to outdated, unhelpful ideas only serves to make things worse for our students.

No one wants to make people feel bad for having an opinion, but far more importantly, no one wants the teaching profession to be suffused with nonsensical ideas just because they sound creative and ‘cool’.

Calling out bad ideas is not hating, it’s helping us all become a better profession.

Embedding Great Habits

To say it is hard work to embed new habits is a huge understatement.

Embedding great behaviour in classes is something that is completely bizarrely not frequently discussed. Some nonsense about getting the lessons right equating with good behaviour has become a prevalent belief. More nonsense about behaviour being simply all about ‘positive relationships’ has further muddied the water.

The result is that teachers don’t spend enough time thinking about and talking about straightforward methods to front-load behaviour expectations. Often, good behaviour is expected and behaviour is only discussed after things have gone wrong.

I have come up with a great, simple way to get all teachers to talk about behaviour with their classes. It is a challenge to commit to this for every day of the first half-term starting in September 2017. Visit the website and sign up! There will be more details in September.

Minimal effort; huge impact.

Behaviour Challenge

Learning in 2017

Some of the things I’ve learned/ realised this year about teaching. In no particular order:

  • Saying ‘just two more students to start working’ is more effective than naming those students.
  • Teach Like A Champion is a wonderfully helpful book, even though I think the name of it is terrible. For me this year, the section on routines has been hugely helpful.
  • Rote Learning, memorisation, and procedural learning are essential to the learning process.
  • Progressive ideology was at the heart of my PGCE.
  • Having an entrance routine for all students is beneficial.
  • SLANT is a useful summary of good student behaviours in class.
  • Teachers provide a wonderful service for society; we should demand respect.
  • Silence should be expected whenever a teacher wants it.
  • Modelling the hardest work is important.
  • I have 3 modes to my teaching: assertive authoritative/ too relaxed and jokey/ irate. Clearly assertive authoritative is the one to be in 100% of the time. I’m in it for about 70 to 80% of the time at the moment.
  • Warm and strict is a good way to think about the demeanor of strong teachers.
  • Having very high expectations of students results in some students (the ones who are not used to being called to account for poor behaviour) complaining.
  • The vast majority of kids and parents want strong discipline. I have been supported a lot by parents this year, and have had kids seek me out to apologise for their behaviour