What we can learn from Cognitive Science and Dan Willingham?

Cognitive science shows us what makes instruction effective.

Long ago, primitive peoples attempted to fly by strapping feathered wings to their arms and leaping off cliffs from great heights, flapping with all their might. Despite their dreams and hard work, they invariably failed. Flight only became possible once people understood the laws of gravity, forces and motion, and harnessed the power of these principles, after which people could fly to heights and distances previously unimaginable. Just as historical failure in flight stemmed from insufficient understanding of the principles of nature, contemporary failure in education often stems from insufficiently understanding the laws of the mind.

Cognitive science has critical insights to teach us about how the mind works, how we learn and how we should best design instruction. Scientific research over several decades has established a deep, broad evidence base that is little known about in the UK but will have a profound impact on teaching and learning. This research has been summarised in the book written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ Here are eight of its most important insights that provide a foundation for effective instruction:

1. The mind learns using working memory and long-term memory.

The crucial cognitive structures of the mind are working memory, a bottleneck that is fixed, limited and easily overloaded, and long-term memory, a storehouse that is almost unlimited. So the aim of all instruction should be to improve long-term memory; if nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Effective instruction is a simple equation: it minimises the overload of students’ working memories whilst maximizing the retention in their long-term memories.

2. Critical thinking requires background knowledge.

It makes no sense to try to teach skills like analysis devoid of vital factual content. Building pupils knowledge is crucial, because a memory replete with facts learns better than one without. Having factual knowledge in the long-term memory makes it easier to acquire still more factual knowledge. Effective instruction specifies, sequences and checks the necessary background knowledge on the topic in order to build critical thinking and problem solving skills. This video shows why reading depends less on generic skills and more on general knowledge.

3. Memory is the residue of thought.

Whatever students think of is what they will remember. So we should review lesson plans against the question: what will it make students think about? We must organise ideas in the lesson so that students find them interesting to understand and easy to remember. Effective instruction uses questions, problems, examples, stories and mnemonics to make the material interesting and memorable.

4. Abstract concepts are understood by comparing concrete examples.

Abstractions are hard to understand: we understand new ideas in the context of things we already know. Concrete examples and analogies help illustrate what abstractions mean. Effective instruction builds on what students already know as a way of understanding new material.

5. Learning is impossible without extended practice.

Practice has three benefits: it reinforces basic skills and knowledge, it protects against forgetting, and it improves transfer to new problems. You can cheat the limitations of working memory by chunking in your long-term memory – automating facts and skills to take up less room in the working memory. Practice allows students to have the basic building blocks of subjects, like multiplication and punctuation, on autopilot. Effective instruction gets students to practise the crucial skills in as many ways as possible.

6. Novices can’t learn like experts.

Cognition is fundamentally different between novices and experts. Students are ready to comprehend but not create knowledge. Effective instruction strives for deep understanding in students rather than higher-order synthesis.

7. Learning styles don’t exist.

Knowing students’ learning styles is unnecessary. Children are more alike than they are different in terms of learning: there are not categorically different types of learner. Effective instruction focuses on lesson content, not student differences, in making decisions about how to teach. As one recent commentator said, ‘learning styles are the educational equivalent of the leech in medicine: popular for a period, but with no discernible benefit’. This video shows why learning styles don’t exist.

8. Hard work improves intelligence.

Always talk about successes and failures in terms of effort, not ability. Effective instruction gets students to believe that hard work improves their intelligence.

In summary, what we can learn from cognitive science is simple: avoid overloading the working memory and build long-term memory with questions, knowledge, examples, stories, analogies, practice, mnemonics and hard work.

Professor Dan Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? is a good place to start exploring these ideas. Clark, Kirschner, Sweller’s article is well worth a read: Putting students on the path to learning. My summary of cognitivist education theory for classroom practice is here.

For further reading into the research base:

Willingham, D., 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School?  Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking. American Educator, Spring Issue, pp.4-13

Willingham, D., 2002. Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator, Winter Issue, pp.8-19

Kirschner A., Sweller J. and Clark E., 2006. Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, Educational Psychologist, 41(2), pp.75–86

Sweller J., van Merrienboer J. and Paas F. 1998. Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, 10(3), pp.251-296

Willingham, D.: Critical Thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?

Willingham, D.: What will improve a student’s memory?

Willingham, D. T. (2006). How knowledge helps. American Educator, 30(1), 30-37

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About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
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23 Responses to What we can learn from Cognitive Science and Dan Willingham?

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  20. jochesh00 says:

    The biggest problem about learning is that we know so very little about essential brain functions. We have lots of information, but, speaking as a clinical brain expert, not much of that is helpful. Teaching/education can be simplified down to 1 process. Comparison processing leading to recognition, language, and even creativity. We learn by doing, by imitating, by seeing how others write, talk, think, and believe. We build only on what we know. No one can teach children of age 8 college level information. Teaching MUST be just at/above the level of the children who are learning. Too far above that, it won’t work very well. Very few children below age 12 can, according to Piaget learn now to think logically.
    In Le Chanson Sans Fin, this is written about in considerable detail. As a psychologist, psychiatrist/brain doctorate and somewhat of a polymath, it’s possible that something simple and basic has been found. The simple comparison process seems to underlie most of it. Thanks. Herb Wiggins; Jochesh00.wordpress.com

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