Liberated by Cognitive Science

Understanding the essentials of cognitive architecture is a wonderfully liberating thing. So many of our misconceptions about education, our own and our pupils’, can be laid to rest.

The first, and most important principle is the understanding of what education actually is: changes in long term memory. This simple definition can and should be refined, but it’s an essential starting point. If you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learned it. You were wasting your time, as teacher, as a pupil, if the knowledge which you were supposed to acquire has not at least begun to make its way into your long term memory.

This affects the questions we ask about teaching. Instead of chasing endless proxies for learning, we begin to focus on the thing itself. Instead of asking ‘were the pupils engaged?’ or ‘did they enjoy the lesson?’ or ‘did they write lots in their books?’ we can simply ask ‘what did they remember?’ In the end, that’s all that matters.

But that question logically leads to others. If we are interested in long term memory, we have to be interested in the long term. We are therefore liberated from the obsession with individual lessons as units of learning. We must ask ‘what did they remember the next week, the next month, the next year?’ Now we are able to see education as a coherent long term programme for building mental schemas in the minds of pupils, not a series of isolated fragments which could be judged as ‘outstanding’ or ‘satisfactory’.

These are just a few of the ways in which understanding cognitive architecture liberates us professionally. But there is a wonderful personal liberation too. So often I have complained over the years about how poor my memory is. Recently, when I was explaining to a colleague how much explicit memorisation I require of pupils, he said, ‘My memory’s rubbish. I suppose you have trained yours to be able to do this?’ From his tone, it sounded like he thought such ‘training’ would require Herculean efforts, beyond the capacities of most ordinary mortals.

But when we understand that we all have extremely limited working memory, but practically limitless long term memory, and that repeated practice and testing can ensure that anything can be securely stored, then we know that we do not have a rubbish memory. We have a human memory, and we face the same limitations and have the same amazing potential as the rest of the human race. The obstacles we face to filling our memories with countless treasures of poetry, history and science are obstacles that we, and our pupils, can overcome with persistent, faithful, steady effort.

It is also a wonderful liberation to realise that we have not, in fact, forgotten most of what we learned in school. Every well educated adult has a vast store of tacit knowledge which enables her to read a wide range of texts, as well as listen to other articulate, educated adults and take part in intelligent conversation with them. It is amazing to consider just how much we do, in fact, remember, but this also places a solemn duty upon us. When we realise how much we know, we appreciate how important it is that we should pass this on, so that succeeding generations can also take part in this conversation. And we’ll never succeed in doing this unless we talk to our pupils!

So with the excitement and liberation of discovering the reality of how the human mind works, come solemn duties: to pass on knowledge, and to fight against the ideas which prevent us, or our colleagues, from doing so, such as ‘education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school’.

These ideas are so often glibly repeated in staff rooms or displayed on classroom walls, and they strike at the very root of what education is, and even what human beings are. To fill the mind with knowledge, and to treasure this knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations, is to perpetuate human civilisation. To refuse to do so is to abdicate from one of the most fundamental human responsibilities.


6 thoughts on “Liberated by Cognitive Science

  1. Well.

    The dilemma is deciding what knowledge is most powerful for our students to learn and also ensuring they see the power in that knowledge. Many students thirst for knowledge seems to have been quenched by snap chats and LOL’s on their mobile phones.


    • Teachers don’t really have that much say in determining what knowledge their pupils should learn; this is largely defined by SATs, GCSEs and A-levels. Thanks to Gove and Gibb, they’ve improved a lot–but they will always be contested. We shouldn’t forget the ‘National Strategies’ that Ed Balls was poised to launch–traditional academic disciplines would actually have disappeared in favour of vague ‘areas of learning’.

      I doubt that any child is born with a thirst for academic knowledge. Subjects only become interesting to the extent that we know something about them. At first, new information makes very few connections. The more we know, the more likely new input is likely to be meaningful. Sadly, primary education is virtually a knowledge-free zone, and at KS3 teachers are virtually starting from scratch–yet due to the lack of systematic testing, most of what they learn is forgotten by the time they reach KS4.

      Even more to the point, when children are expected to discover knowledge for themselves, they don’t learn much in the first instance–they really need a heavy dose of direct instruction to ‘kick start’ the process. Michaela is demonstrating how powerful this can be.


      • There’s a huge amount of scope for teachers, or, more effectively, schools and groups of schools, to determine specific content across the curriculum. The constraints don’t really arrive until you start GCSE courses. Sadly, many schools allow those constraints to invade the lower years, but it doesn’t have to be so.

        Liked by 2 people

    • This may well be true in the humanities, but in STEM subjects it sure as hell ain’t. For instance, it’s all but impossible to convince maths teachers to do anything about automatic recall of number bonds, even though in the secondary sector there’s growing awareness of the implications of Sweller and cognitive load. This secondary teacher explains why:

      “Maths teachers just despair when they find their new cohort can’t do anything they’re supposed to. But they just brush it away because they haven’t got the hours in the day to address it. Any intervention just tackles problems that will come up on the next exam paper (even coaching them to answer the first question or two will give them a grade. It’s shit, they know it’s shit, but if you have no time left, what do you do?”


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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