Cognitive science is the study of the mental processes that we use to learn and understand information. It is a very broad field, with many higher order processes and executive functions such as memory, attention, and word processing falling under its umbrella.
It has taken on more and more importance in the education world, with findings suggesting it can potentially help students all over the world learn better.
You can read our introduction to cognitive science here, where we wrote about how teachers can apply cognitive science principles to the classroom. Advocates of cognitive science sing its praises loudly from the rooftops. But can cognitive science really solve any and all problems in schools?
Which problems does cognitive science solve?
We know that cognitive science helps to solve one major problem amongst students: ineffective learning.
Research in cognitive science has helped develop some great learning strategies. Some of these strategies include:
- Spacing – Studying little and often is a very effective way to learn new information.
- Interleaving – Mixing up topics within one study session is more effective than learning topics one by one.
- Retrieval practice – Generating answers to questions with self-testing techniques such as past papers, flash cards or multiple choice quizzes results in highly effective learning.
- Dual coding – Using both words and pictures helps students engage with new information in two ways, resulting in more effective learning and memory.
- Managing cognitive load – Since the brain has a limited capacity for working memory, not processing too much information at once can lead to more effective learning.
However, this isn’t the only problem that schools are trying to solve. Although cognitive science has helped make great strides in learning, there are issues it cannot account for.
Which problems does cognitive science not solve?
There are some problems that cognitive science simply can’t solve. These include:
1. Student misbehaviour
It is no surprise that students with bad behaviour in the classroom usually perform worse academically – but one student’s bad behaviour might also have a negative impact on the academic performance and achievement of the students around them.
One could make the case that in part, misbehaviour may be down to a mismanagement of cognitive load. Too little load on a student can lead to them getting bored and distracted. Too much and it can lead to them getting frustrated and disruptive.
That being said, we know there is a myriad of factors that contribute to why some students misbehave, and cognitive science can’t provide a full answer to this. Fortunately, other areas of research can help. For example, one review found that effective behaviour management strategies can include:
- Setting clear rules and expectations for students and applying them consistently;
- Establishing routines and consequences for misbehaviour;
- Praising students for good behaviour.
Absenteeism refers to regularly staying home from work or school without a good reason. Missing lessons can have negative consequences on student learning, and although most student absences are justified due to illnesses for example, schools should still consider ways they can improve attendance at school. These might include:
- Creating a clear attendance policy, including expectations for attendance and procedures for reporting absences;
- Rewarding good attendance, without penalising absentees;
- Encourage student engagement in the classroom .
This is another example of a problem that cannot be solved using cognitive science. Instead, schools can address absenteeism by improving classroom culture, encouraging engagement and ensuring that students make the most out of their time when they are at school.
3. Curriculum design
School curriculums form a huge part of the structure of teaching. Curriculums are important for making teaching and learning consistent across schools, helping teachers align across year groups and subject areas, and for keeping up with new topics that are relevant today.
Creating a good curriculum requires balance. But many schools report that their curriculums are too crowded, in three main ways:
- Over-expansion – This refers to curriculums that add new content, usually due to societal demands, without removing other, pre-existing items to compensate.
- Overload – This refers to curriculums that have too much content to be covered in the time available.
- Imbalance – This refers to curriculums that give a disproportionate amount of attention to some subjects or topics in comparison to others.
Cognitive science can go some way to helping alleviate this. Knowledge about interleaving and spacing can help ensure learning is as efficient as possible, meaning more content is remembered over large periods of time. But it can only be a slice of the pie. Many factors, such as logistical issues, physical space, time allowed and ethos of the school all contribute. Cognitive science may help inform curriculum design. But it can not completely dictate it.
So, is cognitive science the answer to every problem in school? No. It is very good at what it sets out to do, i.e. explaining how students best learn. And learning and memory are clearly fundamental to what schools are trying to achieve. But they are also trying to achieve more than just that. This blog has looked at three such areas, and no doubt many others exist.
We are living through a golden age of cognitive science in education. Our understanding of the research and how it applies improves every year. There is great cause to be optimistic. The challenges ahead are vast, and cognitive science can play an important (if not fundamental) role in this. But we should also acknowledge the other areas, of both research and daily life that play a part in solving the educational equation.
Do you want to work together with 10 like-minded schools on how to use the best cognitive science research to improve teaching & learning in your school? Join the Cognitive Science Network...