Can cognitive science save education?

Sunday 29 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 1-3Battle for Education

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After decades of background research, it appears that cognitive science has discovered how to make learning really work. Leading cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham, author of Why Children Don’t Like School, are finally clarifying the learning problems associated with ‘cognitive overload’ – previously known as bad teaching.

So effective have been the findings of cognitive science that government ministers have already applied it to their policy thinking. There appears to be a clear educational – and increasingly parental – consensus on the benefits of cognitive science and ‘educational neuroscience’. At the Education World Forum in 2017, schools minister Nick Gibb explained that learning works best when it factors in ‘the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture’. Put the learner first, the evidence suggests, and the knowledge will follow.

With concomitant advances in technology, it is also said to be possible to appreciate how learning works at a neural level, through brain imaging. Can schools and educators also use this new technology to further understanding of the complexities of adolescent development? Surely, such advances in cognitive and neuroscience can help our students reach their potential? One leading applied example is the Michaela Free School in London. A book written by the school’s staff, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, provides numerous references to how cognitive science works. And in its 2017 advertisements for new teachers, the school states that staff will ‘teach a knowledge-based curriculum built on cutting-edge insights from cognitive science’. Furthermore, ‘at Michaela, pupils really do remember what has been taught. The use of chants and acronyms help pupils to remember information such as cell organelles and functions and the life cycle of a star.’

So, is cognitive science really an educational no-brainer? Have we finally found an educational gospel that genuinely works? And, if so, is cognitive science able to become properly institutionalised now it has clear support from the DfE? How do we shift teacher training in a direction that reflects these new insights? Or is there more to cognitive science than the good news story above? Why, for example, can’t great knowledge just speak for itself? Is cognitive science just old-fashioned common sense? Alternatively, are too many innovative ‘educational programmes’ based on neuromyths with little genuine evidence behind them?