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’. Thus do the principles of cognitive architecture liberate us from the madness of graded lesson observations.

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 lies 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 lies 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.

Direct Instruction Transforms Behaviour

We must be very clear that the choices made by pupils are their own responsibility. If they decide to be rude or defiant, they have made that choice, and they must take the consequences. Few things make my blood boil more than hearing senior leaders blaming classroom teachers for pupil behaviour.

But at the same time, we must acknowledge that the methods used by teachers will influence the behaviour of pupils. When teachers spend their time trying to entice pupils to learn something through an endless variety of activities, the implicit message pupils receive is that they are consumers of an education product. And the customer is always right. They are at liberty to ignore the teacher if they don’t ‘buy’ what the teacher is ‘selling’.

So the endless and exhausting task of trying to persuade pupils that learning is fun will have a serious negative impact upon behaviour. On the other hand, when whole class instruction is used, with regular routines and the consistent expectation of full attention from all pupils all the time, classes that seemed to be impossible when they were faced with edutainment can become calm and ordered places. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with firm and persistent effort over a number of weeks, behaviour steadily improves.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because all pupils know what is expected of them. A good course of direct instruction will include a large amount of repeated practice to ensure mastery. Not only does this make sense from a cognitive point of view, it creates calm and order, because the pupils are not only practising whatever element of the curriculum is being covered, they are also practising how to practise: how to focus the mind consistently on one clear area of study and repeat it until mastery is achieved. This kind of practice is methodical and reassuring, and satisfying in a quiet way. But no pupil could mistake it for entertainment, so they don’t respond as they would to entertainment: with boos, cheers or indifference.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because when pupils are not practising, the lessons are directly led by the teacher, interacting with the whole class. The teacher stands at the front and expects every pupil to track her. She calls out key concepts and the whole class repeats them. She calls on individuals and they repeat the concepts, word for word; there is no ambiguity about what is expected of them. She goes through worked examples with the whole class, calling on individuals at key moments, without asking for hands up. Answering questions is compulsory, not voluntary. Everyone knows that if they are failing to pay attention, they will be spotted. No one is neglected. Everyone is included. Group work divides and excludes. Whole class interactive instruction is the most inclusive method possible: no one is left out, disaffected, labelled as useless, left behind, disenfranchised. No one has any of these common reasons to start misbehaving.

Behaviour improves with direct instruction because pupils are never asked to do things they cannot do. They are never asked questions to which they do not know the answer. The steady, incremental nature of a well designed programme of direct instruction means that pupils are never thrown in at the deep end. They gradually master each element of the curriculum, and the curriculum is coherently organised so that they are never required to run before they can walk. So often pupils begin to misbehave because they are baffled, so they give up and start mucking about instead.

If you want a calm, ordered classroom in which everyone can make progress, start using direct instruction. You’ll be amazed at how difficult pupils who ignored your every attempt to entertain them will quite contentedly work steadily on clear tasks with definite outcomes. They will gain the calm satisfaction of making progress, and happily leave behind the fraught and confusing role of consumer which had previously been forced upon them by misguided educational ideology.

Whole Class Instruction Enables Targeted Support

In-class differentiation means that the whole class is disadvantaged, because they cannot experience an ordered classroom where the expert instructs them. They cannot experience a coherent curriculum because the curriculum must be personalised.

But there is a huge difference between in-class differentiation and targeted support outside class. Schools such as Michaela, for example, target pupils who need it with an intensive synthetic phonics programme. This is because they recognise that without these fundamentals firmly in place, pupils will not be able to access fully the rich knowledge curriculum that they offer through whole class instruction.

Or consider the example of Japan. Large mixed ability classes receive whole class instruction, and they are all expected to reach the same standard. But teachers regularly give additional support to pupils outside lesson time. They are able to do this because they teach far fewer lessons per week due to the large class sizes, and because they are not wasting time producing complicated, ineffective plans for different activities within each lesson.

This is the best model. Coherent, whole class instruction in orderly classrooms, with the expectation that everyone will master the content, combined with targeted support outside the classroom, made possible by an efficient whole school approach.

In the madness and chaos of differentiated classrooms, with exhausted teachers and the noise and distraction of multiple activities, those who need additional support do not get it. In the orderly, sane world of a coherent curriculum and whole class instruction, there is plenty of time and energy to give them the extra help they need.

Whole class instruction enables targeted support. Differentiation damages everyone’s progress, but like all ineffective approaches, it hurts the disadvantaged most of all.

Further reading:

Differentiation Damages the Disadvantaged

The Cult of Differentiation

We Need Better Courses, Not More Adaptive Teaching

In recent years, there has been a gradual move in the English education system away from the darkest days of individualised learning, when teachers were expected to plan different lessons for different pupils, thus ensuring curricular incoherence and chaotic classrooms.

This move is to be welcomed, but we must not be complacent. Even if the insanity of planning thirty different lessons is not being proposed, the residual ideas still haunt many classrooms, to the extent that many teachers still feel that it is somehow wrong to teach the whole class the same thing, and require every pupil to do the same tasks.

As David Didau recently pointed out, on some levels, adapting teaching to the needs of individuals seems to be just ordinary good teaching. If a pupil doesn’t​ understand, surely any teacher would adapt the lesson, in the sense of spending time with that pupil explaining a little more? Or if a significant proportion of pupils don’t understand, isn’t it time to re-teach the whole class, rather than moving on?

But as with many teaching practices that just seem to be obvious, it’s worth thinking harder about this one. If one individual is struggling, should a teacher really interrupt instruction for the remaining twenty-nine in order to give her attention? If the teacher did this regularly, instruction would be so frequently interrupted that overall, less would be learned.

And then there is the problem of confusing performance with learning. At an early stage in a course of instruction, we would expect performance to be lower, but this is an ordinary part of the gradual mastery of knowledge. A good course would already have taken this into account. It would already contain many iterations of key elements, spaced out and interleaved with other material, so that over the whole course, every pupil would have overlearned core propositional and procedural knowledge, and it would be securely stored in their long term memory. If a teacher started ‘adapting’ such a course of instruction because they thought there was too much or too little repetition, then the carefully designed sequence would quickly be undermined.

What is needed is not more adaptive teaching, but better designed courses of instruction, so that everyone can make progress. And it is not fair to expect ordinary classroom teachers to design these courses. This is why curriculum leadership is so vital to improving education.

Should Young Children Learn Through Play?

Deadly Nightshade

Not all of the products of nature are nourishing.

The earliest years of education are those which have been reformed the least. In secondary schools, there is a significant and growing movement in favour of strict discipline and formal instruction. Secondary school teachers are subject teachers, so it’s not so hard to convince them that subject knowledge should be foregrounded and children should have to listen to the expert in the room. But teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists. Primary school and preschool teachers tend to see themselves as teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.

Of course, understood correctly, there’s nothing wrong with considering oneself as a teacher of children. It would be worrying if any teacher did not say this, if we mean by it that we care about those we teach as human beings. It’s stating the obvious.

But when teachers say that they teach the child, not the subject, they often mean more than the obvious. They mean that education should be led by the child. They mean that they believe in what E D Hirsch calls ‘providential individualism’: the idea that if we allow individuals free and unfettered choices, then things will somehow work out for the best in the end. In other words, saying ‘I teach the child’ is frequently a confession of faith in the progressive creed that education must be child-centred, so that it can take its ‘natural’ course.

Because this is an article of mystical faith, and has no basis in the reality of growing up (how many children are potty trained through child-centred learning?), its adherents are fiercely resistant to alternatives, and tend to react with outrage and disbelief when someone says, for example, that basing education mostly around play is not the best way to introduce the very young to the wonderful world of knowledge outside their immediate experience. They tend to see any attacks on their creed as necessarily emanating from child-hating monsters.

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Even playing successfully requires formal instruction and an authority figure to enforce rules, if it is not to descend into the Lord of the Flies type experience I had at nursery school, which is still the most savage of my memories of ‘education’.

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.

Understanding or Memorising?


Herbert A Simon (1916-2001)

One of the most damaging myths in education is that there is a conflict between memorisation and understanding, when in fact, they go together, and are both essential. This is one of the ideas demolished by Daisy Christodoulou in Seven Myths, under the heading of ‘facts prevent understanding’. The classic piece of research by Nobel laureate Herbert Simon on chess players shows how memorising and understanding are not in conflict; rather, they are intertwined and interdependent. Chess grand masters can look briefly at a chess board and then remember the positions of the pieces far better than those not skilled in chess. But they could only do this when the pieces were arranged as they would be in a game scenario. When they were randomly arranged, the chess players performed no better than the average.

The chess grand master’s supreme skill is based largely on memorising tens of thousands of game scenarios. Most of the time, most of what a grand master is doing in a chess game is remembering. This is not in conflict with understanding. Obviously the grand master understands the rules of chess, but then so does someone who is only a beginner. What distinguishes the grand master from the beginner is the difference between their long term memories. One is well-stocked with chess moves and scenarios, while the other isn’t. If the beginner wants to advance, she needs to put in the effort and get memorising. She needs to be drilled, or drill herself. She needs to study hard.

This applies to every academic subject. Understanding and memorisation are both essential, but the majority of the effort must go into memorising, because a pupil can grasp a concept readily in a lesson, but quickly forget it, because she has not been drilled in class, nor has she been required to self-quiz for homework to consolidate the knowledge, nor has she been tested at intervals to make sure it does not fade. Drilling, self-quizzing, testing at intervals: these are the foundations of teaching which enable everyone to make progress, because memorisation is absolutely essential, and it strengthens and consolidates understanding. Without the knowledge in your mind, how can you think about it? It is the lack of these foundations which leads to the lament which I have heard so often in so many staff rooms: “I taught them that material. Why can’t they remember it? Why did so many fail the end of term exam?”

It is because of the false distinction between understanding and memorisation that teachers do not focus anywhere near enough time on making sure the foundations are in place. The bulk of class and homework time needs to be dedicated to making sure that core knowledge is thoroughly mastered. If this is not done, then only the most able and motivated will make much progress. The most able and motivated may well then go on to become education professors, and because they were not required to memorise, they’ll think that everyone else can just blithely sail along without the hard work of deliberately committing key facts and procedures to memory.

This is known as expert blindness, and the more gifted a person is, the more likely they are to suffer from it. But all teachers suffer from it to some extent, and to overcome it, we need good programmes of instruction which emphasise drill and repeated practice. We can’t depend upon our gut feeling, or even our ‘professional judgement’, to know when something has been practised enough.

Further reading:

Rote Learning is Ace

Memory and Liberal Education

(Image from Wikimedia).


Learning from Eton


Eton College

In July 1994, I attended Eton for two weeks, along with many other boys and girls from state schools. In those days, it was called the Eton Summer School, and was open to sixth-formers from state schools in the neighbouring counties. Nowadays, it’s called the Universities Summer School, and is open to state school sixth-formers across Britain.

Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience, for many reasons: the beauty of the surroundings, the hot summer weather and the World Cup where we had to support Ireland (The Guardian issued pretend green passports) would have been enough by themselves to lodge it permanently in my mind. But the most wonderful thing of all was, of course, the teaching.

I attended a very ordinary comprehensive school, and it was a revelation to encounter, during this intense fortnight, so many articulate, knowledgeable men who could confidently explain the most complex literary texts, and did not hesitate to do so.

My readers may very well be saying at this point: that’s wonderful for Eton, but what could an ordinary school learn from this? Ordinary schools do not have lots of Oxbridge graduates knocking at their door. And it’s true, widespread school reform cannot depend upon the widespread deployment of exceptional teachers, because they are, well . . . exceptional. Away from the dreaming spires of Eton, what can be done?

My answer lies in the most memorable Eton lesson of all. It was on Twelfth Night. The teacher drew a simple two column table on the whiteboard and explained the opposing ideas which form the conceptual framework of the play, such as discipline versus licence, temperance versus excess, reality versus fantasy.

It was chalk and talk. A simple, traditional lesson in which the teacher explained key concepts and wrote things on the board. That’s all. And it was fantastic. I had rarely experienced such clear, explicit instruction in literature. There had usually been a fuzziness about studying literature compared to this clarity and directness, delivered from the front in a completely uncomplicated, unapologetically traditional style.

I’ve often wondered how much more I could have learned through all my years at comprehensive school if my teachers had done more of this. I’m sure most of them were capable of it. Some of them, especially in maths and science, did it quite often. In fact, the Head of English at my comprehensive school was a Cambridge graduate, and I used to love it when he just talked to us. I wish he had allowed himself to do it more.

There are some things which Eton has which ordinary schools could never have. But every school could have teachers who teach. The battle to achieve this is not financial; what is needed is not more money, but better ideas.