How much do teachers really need to know about the science of learning?

20 Jan 2020, 5:00

The last few years have seen an explosion of interest in the science of learning from the education sector. It is informing teachers, whole schools and even national policy, but rethinking our approaches is never completely straightforward.

A number of key principles from cognitive science have emerged, as set out in the Deans for Impact report and Ambition Institute’s Learning Curriculum 2.0, and many of those principles heavily inform the Department for Education’s Early Career and Initial Teacher Training frameworks.

Yet Turvey and colleagues have already raised concerns that the DfE’s coverage is overly narrow and too focused on recall. Of course, given huge pressures on teachers’ time, it is never possible to cover everything – but we clearly need to think carefully about both priorities and implementation.

To begin with, do teachers need to understand the detail of research in the field, or is an understanding of key implications mediated by research translators sufficient? A superficial understanding of complex research risks ineffective implementation or worse, ‘lethal mutations’, but digesting lengthy research is time-consuming and requires specialist expertise. One way or another, collaboration between teachers and researchers seems critical.

It’s also worth thinking about what teachers already know about the science of learning. Research from the US found that whilst teachers were significantly less likely than the general public to believe myths around cognition and learning, a relatively large number still believed ‘neuromyths’.

Strikingly, 76 per cent of teachers (compared to 93 per cent of the general population) believed that pupils learn better when they receive information in their preferred ‘learning style’. This echoes earlier findings from research into teachers’ beliefs in the UK and Netherlands, which found that over 90 per cent of teachers believed in ‘learning styles’.

Critically, teachers’ professional autonomy needs to remain central

Whilst some of the myths tested in these surveys relate to how the brain works from a neuroscience perspective – which Dylan Wiliam has suggested provides little of use in terms of findings for teachers – others have real implications for classroom practice. Belief in ‘learning styles’, for example, can create huge unnecessary workload implications for teachers developing multiple versions of each resource.

And in a recent smaller-scale survey that sought to explore teachers’ awareness of the value of practices based in cognitive science (such as spacing and interleaving), only 31 per cent of respondents thought retrieval practice was more effective than re-reading learned content.

Even when teachers do have good understanding of the principles of cognitive science in theory, practical application is not straightforward. Rob Coe has written about the challenges teachers face in effectively translating even a well-evidenced approach into the classroom.

On the other hand, teachers and researchers alike have shared examples of cognitive science being successfully adopted in the classroom, for example in improving slideshow presentations through application of cognitive load theory and dual coding. A wide range of blogs and articles are also included in this reading list, and the next issue of the Chartered College’s journal, Impact focuses specifically on cognition and learning.

Critically, teachers’ professional autonomy needs to remain central to how approaches based on cognitive science are implemented. Imposing inflexible school-wide policies is not only likely to be unhelpful for pupils’ learning, but fails to recognise the need for teachers to be trusted to make informed decisions.

And the same approaches do not work in all contexts. Research on the expertise reversal effect suggests that the approaches that are most effective with novice learners may be less effective when working with more expert ones. Primary-age pupils are likely to need more prompts and structure than older pupils for retrieval practice to work well.

In the end, cognitive science does not provide a recipe for what teachers should do, but rather should inform their repertoire of approaches. And of course, it forms only one part of teachers’ extensive knowledge and expertise.

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  1. The suggestion that neuroscience provides “little of use” is an error. Since Ramón y Cajal´s Nobel prize for identifying and drawing brain cells in 1906, it has provided increasingly detaile evidence of what is happening in the brain as we learn, and this is moving in a consistent direction. If we know what is happening, we can develop clearer ideas of how to make it happen by building and consolidating neural networks. One point is that the jerking back and forth involved in copying, which is still too frequently used in schools, interferes with the formation of networks. The Learning Brain remains the first port of call, with Kandel´s In Search of Memory close behind. I´ve considered the issue in the ppt downloadable from this link.