The Cognitive Revolution in Teaching

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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Have teachers always been interested in how the mind works and have we always wanted an evidence-based profession?

There is an increased call for evidence in teaching; for teachers to be informed more reliably than ever before.

What is Cognition?

As I discover more about cognition, research and evidence in and out of the classroom, the eternal question, ‘is teaching as an art or a science?’ continues.

Advances in neuroscience have resulted in the investigation of the mind (the software) been combined with the investigation of the brain (the hardware). A branch of psychology known as cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive-ism is a rejection of psychoanalytic approaches, which try to understand the mind in terms of myth, and of behaviourist approaches, which try to understand the mind in terms of behaviour only. This is a quote from a psychology book I have on my desk. Here’s another from the British Council: “Cognitive strategies are a type of learning procedure that we use in order to learn more successfully. These include repetition, organising new language, summarising meaning, guessing meaning from context, using imagery for memorisation.” (Source)

In education, particularly with teachers in the classroom, there has been a renewed call (via social media) for evidence-based practice to inform what teachers are doing in the classroom – and more importantly, why. This could be called ‘the cognitive revolution’ in teaching and is evident in the emergence of retrieval practice, dual coding and teachers learning more about memory and metacognition. Things that teachers have been doing for decades, albeit subconsciously.

Twenty years ago, this demand for evidence at this scale never existed in my formative years, or at least was not apparent as it is today, nor did it ever cross my lips once as a young teacher. However, this is not to say that all teachers have not experienced cognitive science, or have wanted to use or access this field of research to improve their teaching. In my opinion, we all should. However, there is a danger that as research-hungry educators latch on to this new-found-love, some will begin to only accept any claims of ‘what works’ in the classroom, particularly in cognitive terms, with only hard evidence to support it, rather than a teacher’s cognitive experience within the classroom – all those idiosyncratic decisions standing (on our feet) in front of pupils. Ignoring teacher-decisions, particularly the unobserved (cognitive) decisions, could undermine validating what a teacher knows best – from a pragmatic stance – and ‘what works’ in their classroom being quashed against scientific evidence.

I hope this makes sense.

I’d like to argue that teachers can still hold their own domain in classrooms and continue to do what works for them, and without the need for evidence! There should always be a lace for subjectivism. But, this will come at a price. If teachers are told to do XY and Z by senior leadership teams without any validity, or we find various gimmicks off the internet to trial and use in our classrooms, there is a danger that teachers will continue to do all sorts of tricks and one-off performances to please observers without any reliability or hard evidence.

Something has to change and we must be able to trust our teachers to get on with the job they do best. And sometimes, just sometimes, this can be done without any evidence to inform best practice. Whether cognitive approaches about how we teach and learn, require positivism or subjectivism evidence in the classroom is still up for debate.

What do you think?


8 thoughts on “The Cognitive Revolution in Teaching

  1. You make an interesting point. Trusting teacher’s judgement is being questioned more and more. In fact the trust in teachers seems to be disappearing altogether. I don’t have any easy answers but I do thin kit is something of which we should be aware.

  2. I think you raise interesting points that are often pitched in irreconcilable debate. I see research evidence as a right for teachers to ask questions and to work on their craft, but there will always be examples where school leaders, and others beyond school, try to drive policy using such research evidence. For me, I think we should arm teachers with enough knowledge to defend themselves against snake-oil nonsense and to therefore better develop upon their craft.

    In terms of not accepting anything that hasn’t been trailed with evidence of efficacy, I think we can judge that wisely. I think we will always find new frontiers like technologies etc. that need to be trialled without pre-existing evidence ethey work (a knowledge of good research evidence would better help the crucial evaluation along the way). In that way, we cannot dismiss something because there isn’t an RCT or such like to prove it. At the same time, however, we can be sceptical of overreaching claims. I am empowered to challenge when I am told ‘this will improve your GCSEs at Huntington’ with ‘what evidence do you have for that?’ If claims are inflated – most advertising is – then we can puncture them. That is using evidence wisely, in my view, thereby empowering teachers.

    I like to use the term ‘educated intuition’. I have an intuition of what will work in my context and my classroom, but I want to test my assumptions with evidence – even evidence to the contrary (difficult though that can prove to tolerate!). Give teachers time to develop both in harmony: the job they do best, supported by the best evidence available.

    Why then shouldn’t we trust teacher to crack on BUT using good evidence to better inform those intuitions. Give them time, resources and a resourceful teacher will typically apply the evidence wisely.

    Turned into a bit of a blog that!


    1. I look forward to your blog 🙂 the point made about ‘evidence intuitive’ is valid and poignant. This is where we are at; and I think Evidence Intuitive would make a perfect blog post title. You should, before I do 🙂

  3. This is the job the Evidence Based Teachers Network is trying to do. 6000 members so far, mostly UK teachers. Aim is simple: to distill the evidence (sources: Hattie, Marzano, EEF, Geoff Petty etc) and make the findings accessible to teachers.
    If we are going to expend time/effort/money in developing a new skill, it may as well be one which has been shown to work well in other schools.

  4. I believe there is a valuable place for evidence based research to inform and enrich what we do as a classroom teacher and certainly in school leadership.

    There are far too many important decisions made in schools based on a reaction to results, ofsted feedback or government demands at all levels. We seem to be constantly responding to situations to drive teaching and learning and not doing enough innovating, which I firmly believe the process towards using evidenced based research allows.

    It is not just about gathering evidence to support a new strategy or teaching idea, but more about the process of discovery, trial and error and the learning process of fine tuning proposals which is of interest. When a new school policy is introduced I want to know how, when and what has got us to this place. What is the evidence and methods used to gather this?

    School leadership and decision making would seem less imposing upon teachers, if the evidence provided about policy and change clearly identified the impact it will bring.

    The research process and participation in evidence based research can provide validity for leadership decisions (especially the difficult ones) and is an empowering and valuable process for any teacher to develop their pedagogy and share what they have gained with the wider teaching and learning community.

  5. I agree with every word of this blog. Blimey!
    There is a huge dearth – can a dearth be huge? – of experienced, long-standing classroom teachers. How many classrooms have a regular teacher over 40? Over 45?
    Age and experience do stand for something, if only that an older teacher is maybe slightly more able to stick two fingers up at the nonsense.
    I hate to use the N word, but Nowadays, new teachers, unless they are of the tiny fraction who are so charismatic that they can go abroad for 6 months and their class will still make progress, are not able to have a bit of a go and find out what works; how they can teach. There is such pressure to conform that they are likely to follow how-to bloglists, tricks-of-the-trade gurus and do-as-you’re-told directives from management. They do it for 5 years and then clear off. I don’t blame them.
    I have to do the anecdote thing:
    My kids were at primary school just as the national curriculum was being invented and getting going. I got cross once when the head said we were all deprived, but she was right. I have lots of stories about their ‘education’. Here are a few. In year 5 I asked number 2 daughter’s teacher why she never did any maths. She said that maths was not her thing really. I asked the head about this and she explained that a primary school should have a series of teachers who are expert and enthusiastic in their field; the children will hopefully have each subject from an expert as they move through the school. I can handle that.
    In year 4, number one daughter had a teacher from a totally alien environment, who believed that showing beautiful art and playing classical music would enlighten and tame these wild South London beasts. They spent the greater part of every day on the brink of riot. I was a parent governor and went in once near Xmas, when they were playing musical chairs…
    The school was full of Vietnamese boat people and new immigrants from various troubled parts of the world. I doubt they would all have got level 4A+ on today’s KS2 SATs, and they moved on to supposedly not very good secondary schools.
    But guess what? They all became somebody. My kids are still in touch with many of their primary school friends. They all made it. Many are graduates. They are in their 30s, all earning a living and enjoying their lives.
    Their teachers were never inspected by outside agencies. Never.

  6. Remember VAK? Considered the sometimes shoddy misrepresentation of Dweck’s mindset theory? Did you get involved in integrating PLT’s across the board enthusiatically only to be told they were being dumped as not academic enough? Have you challenged the VL stats based evidence of Hattie (debunked by Higgins and Simpson, Durham Uni) as being mathematically inept?

    There’s plenty on both sides of the progressive v traditional quagmire to not be proud of! But, trust in experienced professionals is waning in many schools and it is critical. These are our mentor pool. Ready and almost always willing to support less experienced teachers to shine and learn the art.

    Evidence is only evidence when the science can offer unconditional proof. So, we have some way to go in creating scientific methods capable of evaluating the very same cognitive advantages of pedagogy that neuroscience does not yet understand. That, in itself, should sway us towards the experienced teachers intuition? We may not understand that (intuition) either but kids learn and staff learn from their wonderful example.

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