The practical application of cognitive science in the classroom


Yesterday I had the pleasure of addressing the Learning Brain Europe conference at the Lowry in Salford. I discussed the following five teaching strategies, each of which is informed by cognitive neuroscience:

1. Pitching work in the zone of proximal development
2. Creating desirable difficulties
3. Teaching knowledge before skill
4. Planning for deliberate practice
5. Promoting a growth mindset

The Lowry in the heart of MediaCity UK, Salford

There is no panacea

But before I examined the scientific evidence and explored how these five strategies could be put to immediate use by teachers in classrooms, I expressed an important caveat: that there is no silver bullet, no panacea, no pill which once popped will proffer outstanding teaching and learning every time. Why not? Because teaching is a complex, nuanced art form. And I used the words ‘art form’ advisedly because – although we can learn a lot from science about how our brains work and therefore which strategies and techniques can deepen and strengthen our students’ capacity for learning – it is my belief that teaching in itself is not a science but an art.

Teaching is, to my mind, about a human connection between a teacher and a student, and between a student and a student. It is not about the words we use, rather the way we make students feel. Great teaching is about sensitivity and adaptation, about warm interactions, about – as Graham Nuthall says – adjusting to the here-and-now circumstances of the classroom.

So teaching is complex and anything complex cannot be reduced to a checklist.

As such, there is no blueprint, no secret formula to teaching outstanding lessons. The best thing to do, therefore, is to get to know your students by regularly assessing them and then to plan for progress by providing opportunities for all your students to fill gaps in their knowledge, skills and experiences.

I shared my view that learning is invisible and cannot be observed in a single lesson. As John Mason said, teaching takes place in time but learning takes place over time. A lesson does not exist in isolation; it is all about context, so it is better to think of a lesson as one learning episode in a long series.

The best teachers, I said, are sensitive to the needs of their students. Students work best for the teachers who respect them, know their subjects, and are approachable, and enthusiastic. The most effective teachers are relentless in their pursuit of excellence and are able to explain complex concepts in a way which makes sense.

I told colleagues that I’ve been lucky to observe a lot of lessons over the years and in the least effective ones, behaviour was a constant issue. Teachers weren’t able to sustain a learning-focused environment and usually lacked assertiveness, confidence or the ability to communicate effectively with the class. Expectations were low. The work was too easy and students’ mediocre responses were accepted passively without challenge. There was a mechanical task-completion focus rather than an emphasis on conceptual understanding. And basic pedagogy was weak, too: the teacher didn’t structure the lesson to secure good learning outcomes and lacked sufficient subject knowledge or the skills to assess students’ understanding; they struggled to communicate their expectations or to explain the concepts well, creating confusion rather than clarity.

In the most effective lessons, by contrast, the teachers were relentless in their pursuit of excellence and their language with students was infused with this sense of urgency and drive. They need not argue about expected standards of behaviour because they achieved it in different ways – sometimes through the gravitas of maturity and experience; sometimes through warm, interpersonal interactions with every student. They also had the ability to explain complex concepts in a way that make sense; they asked good questions and gave really good feedback; however it was done, students felt that they were learning; they knew where they stood and felt confident about the process.

So, having argued that there is no panacea, I effectively went on to share one. I said that if I had a gun to my head and someone threatened to shoot that silver bullet into my brain, I’d have to admit that the secret of great teaching is to know and care about your students.

Having set out this important caveat, I argued that the field of cognitive science was a valuable seam for teachers to mine because it taught us much about how the brain works, how students learn, and – therefore – it offered us a crucial insight into how we could maximise opportunities for deep learning in our classrooms.

Read more of my views on great teaching and great teachers


The first teaching strategy I shared was ‘pitch’ – AKA the importance of setting work that falls within the ‘zone of proximal development’. In other words, work that is challenging but achievable. My thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by Lev Vygotsky.

I said that work that was too hard would make students give in, switch off, and learn nothing. Work that was too easy would see students complete it through habit, without engaging any cognitive processes (i.e. automatically and without thinking) and therefore without learning anything.

When we overcome challenges, our brain rewards us with a dose of dopamine which feels good and is an important chemical in the neurological process of learning. I underlined this point for my audience by setting colleagues two mental arithmetic tasks to do – one impossible within the time constraints; the other so simple they needn’t think about it. The results were writ large on their faces. Within seconds of the first task being set, one delegate said ‘I can’t do it.’ Immediately the moment the second task appeared on screen, every delegate smiled and sat back to relax.

Read more about the zone of proximal development

MediaCity UK – the view from the conference

Desirable difficulties

The second strategy I shared was ‘desirable difficulties’, the placing of artificial barriers in the way of students’ learning. Doing this means that the process of encoding (initial learning) is made harder so that the process of retrieval (recalling that learning later, say in a test) is made easier. My thinking on this subject has been influenced by Dr Robert Bjork.

I gave several examples in the form of retrieval activities to demonstrate how slowing down the learning can strengthen it. What was most fascinating, though, was the different techniques delegates used to try remember information. Some read and re-read the information; others read it briefly then applied it in different ways. More on this shortly.

I shared the general principles behind interleaving and spacing, surmising that we need to return to learning several times (at least three) and re-study it in different ways and different contexts in order for it to be learnt. I said that increasingly long gaps should be left between the study and re-study of information so that students get to the point of almost forgetting before retrieving information from their long-term memories.

I also said that testing – retrieval practice in the form of low-stakes multiple-choice quizzes etc – is a great way to re-study. This was writ large for me by the experiences of the audience when I’d asked them to learn lists of word pairs. The delegates who’d simply read and re-read the list over and over for the full two minutes I’d allocated could recall far fewer pairs than those delegates who’d spent, say, 30 seconds reading the list then closed their eyes or looked away and tested themselves or manipulated the information. Some delegates made use of Sherlock’s ‘mind palace’, scattering the items in the list throughout an imagined environment (their palace) and walking through it making visual connections.

Read more about the science of learning and watch Bjork talk about desirable difficulties

Knowledge before skill

The third strategy I shared was ‘teaching knowledge before skill’, or the importance of connecting learning and applying prior knowledge. I used Daniel Willingham’s four card trick – amongst other activities – to demonstrate how much easier it was to complete a task when you could bring prior knowledge to it.

Read more about memory being the residue of thought and watch Daniel Willingham

Deliberate practice

Fourthly, I talked about the importance of practice but cautioned my audience that practice makes permanent not – as is commonly thought – perfect. It is important, therefore, to practice the right things and in the right way.

I talked about the fact that neurochemistry informs us that practice is important by explaining how – every time we practise something – we develop another layer of myelin around our nerve fibres which act like insulation and make our thinking processes more efficient.

Read more about deliberate practice

Growth mindset

Finally, with reference to Dr Carol Dweck (naturally), I talked about the power of ‘yet’ – that simple three-letter word that can make such a big difference. For example, when a student says ‘I can’t do this’, if the teacher adds the word ‘yet’ to the end of the sentence he/she is making a powerful (yet simple) statement about the growth mindset: that intelligence is not fixed, rather it is malleable and can be improved through hard work and effort.

As teachers, I said, we can create a learning-focused culture by prizing effort over intelligence, progress over attainment. We need to welcome mistakes because mistakes are a means of learning, a way of getting better at something – and everyone can get better at everything if only they try hard and work hard.

Read more about the growth mindset and watch Carol Dweck on mindset and on the power of ‘yet’

Closing remarks at the conference by Dr Rich Allen

As ever, in my enthusiasm for my subject matter (talking to teachers about pedagogy provides a welcome antidote to my everyday battles with budgets, data, and inspection), I bounced around at the front and – no doubt – gesticulated wildly, losing all track of time (poor pedagogy, eh!). The conference coordinator stood at the back counting down the time I had remaining and I could see mild panic behind his eyes as he held up five fingers, then four, then three… with little hope of me ever reaching the end.

I hope – amongst the bouncing and wild gesticulation – I was also to start some conversations which colleagues can continue when they get back to their schools. And I hope I was able to ignite some sparks about cognitive science and what it can teach us about the secret of great learning.

Recommended further reading:

  1. A warning about the use of evidence in education
  2. Lesson planning advice
  3. The pygmalion effect
  4. Excellence is not an act but a habit
  5. The octagon of excellence
  6. Modelling high expectations in the classroom

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