Kelly Richens

Cognitive science is becoming the cornerstone for understanding how students learn and is revolutionising the way that we are teaching pupils, both in primary and secondary.

It has also underpinned the development of the new Ofsted frameworks, both for schools and Initial Teacher Training (ITT) providers. And rightly so: the techniques informed by cognitive science are evidence-based and proven to work. Some schools are just kickstarting their incorporation of cognitive load theory into their teaching and learning visions, whereas other schools have embedded the principles fully.

So, whilst ITT providers are busy implementing the new framework, it may be pertinent and timely to have a quick check over what the cognitive science is, and whether our curriculum is accounting for not just the cognitive load of pupils but the early career teacher too.

I am not claiming to be a leading expert or neuroscience specialist, and there is more than a high chance you already have a good understanding of cognitive science, but let’s have a whistle-stop tour of these principles and how we embed them.

As a science teacher, I had been doing retrieval practice for years but not calling it that, I just knew it worked to help students feel more confident. Yet reading Daniel T Willingham’s ‘Why don’t students like school’ book (Willingham, 2010) felt like an epiphany; it made so much sense. If you haven’t read it, pop it on your wish list.

Two things to explore that struck me as I read it were:

‘memory is the residue of thought’  and  ‘humans are naturally curious but actually quite poor at thinking’

Let’s look at the first one and what we can do to mitigate the cognitive load on pupils and early career teachers.

What this diagram illustrates is that as educationalists we have to ensure information taken from the environment into the working memory is transferred into the long-term memory. We have to get what is in our heads into the heads of the students we are teaching; and all the while competing with environmental factors like a wasp in the room, a windy day or an argument with a friend at break time that has upset someone.

Let’s play a game to illustrate the limits of the working memory, and this is when you have presumably full concentration: look at the picture below for 20 seconds, then cover it and try and remember as many items as possible:

How did you do? 5 would be average, 7 or 8 very good. You were trying to hold lots of pieces of new information in your head. You had cognitive overload. Now imagine doing that with that wasp in the room or that hooley blowing outside! If I showed you this picture again tomorrow, then next week, then a few weeks after that, you would be able to remember all of the objects.

This is demonstrating cognitive load theory, the theory that our thinking working memory (one aspect of cognition) can be easily overloaded. This stops us processing all the information we are presented with and we therefore cannot remember it. This is the huge focus of the new frameworks which we are evolving towards.

So, a key learning so far: your working memory is finite and we need to be cognisant of the cognitive load new learning entails. Part 2 of this article will be published next week.

Dr Kelly Richens is Director of Basingstoke Alliance SCITT. Her book in the Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers series, Using Cognitive Science in the Classroom, edited by NASBTT Executive Director Emma Hollis and published by Critical Publishing, will be out later this year.

Further reading

  • Willingham, D.T. (2010). Why don’t students like school?: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, Ca: Jossey-Bass.
  • Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. America Educator. Spring 2012 (1), 12-19.
  • Tharby, A. (2015). Making every lesson count – six principles to support great teaching and learning. Crown House Publishing.
  • Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0 : 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1885/1913). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology (Translated by H. A. Ruger and C. E. Bussenius). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
  • Hare, L. O., Stark, P., McGuinness, C., & Biggart, A. (2017). Spaced Learning: The Design, Feasibility and Optimisation of SMART Spaces. Evaluation report and executive summary available here.

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