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Primary Education News
News Using cognitive psychology in the classroom: approach with caution
Teachers should be careful about how they use research findings from cognitive psychology. Only take what's useful and practical, advises Tim Taylor
I've always thought it interesting how, as a profession, we teachers find the ideas of cognitive psychologists so beguiling and persuasive.
I first heard of developmental psychologist Howard Gardner at an inset day in the early 1990s. We were told that Gardner's definition of intelligence – multiple intelligences – along with various other discoveries, were going to revolutionise teaching and learning. Schools were to become nirvanas where each class would be transformed into an optimal-learning environment; Mozart playing softly in the background, an infusion of lovely smells wafting through the air and every activity perfectly matched to each student's individual learning styles and intelligences.
Mostly it was nonsense. But at the time, we didn't know any better. We were told these ideas were designed by brain experts, who conducted complicated experiments and had hard evidence – lots of numbers and images of the brain – that proved what they were saying was true. We might think it was nonsense but really it was the future.
So, we set to work trialling the different approaches in our classrooms. Fortunately, in the school I worked in, we had a forward-thinking headteacher who encouraged experimentation but was prepared to listen if we thought something wasn't working.
After a term most of the really wacky stuff was gone. Brain gym – a theory that promotes movement as a learning aid – held on for a while; the exercises seemed to calm down some of the hyperactive children. But I was never keen. One thing that stayed permanently was bottled water, especially on hot days. I still carry a bottle around with me wherever I go so that my brain is constantly tuned and fully hydrated.
Gardner was a conundrum, however. Unlike the other ideas, which were practical (or rather impractical) applications of experiments, multiple intelligences was a respected theory written by a Harvard professor. While I felt confident to say "Brain Gym is stupid" after being told to rub my 'brain-buttons', I didn't feel qualified enough to call Howard Gardner an idiot. So I ordered his book, Frames of Mind.
I didn't enjoy reading it and can't say I understood everything; it wasn't written for teachers. I know this because I heard Gardner speak at a conference where he said something along those lines – that it was up to educators to explore whether his work has practical applications in the classroom. I liked him when he said that and wanted to shout out that it doesn't, but I didn't have the nerve.
After reading the book and exploring its implications in class, I came to two conclusions: it was a theory that needed more evidence from the field it belonged in – cognitive psychology; it had little practical application in the classroom and was not a very helpful way of thinking about learning.
It was a lesson learned: be very cautious and test every idea you think will be useful in the classroom with real kids. As a teacher there is really only one question that matters: "does this help the children learn better?"
I apply this principle to all the theories that come out of psychology, whether I sympathise with the ideology or not. As a science, cognitive psychology is still in its infancy, and there is still much that is unknown. In biology there are still some competing theories and ideas, still new discoveries to be made, but on the whole all biologists agree on the way things work. Similarly, you won't find geologists fighting over plate tectonics. These are mature sciences, where the major theories are agreed on; by comparison, cognitive psychologists are still arguing if the world is flat or round.
This is not to say we have nothing to learn from cognitive psychology. As a teacher I have found many ideas from the field to be helpful and generative. But we should be cautious and critical, judging each idea on its merits and remembering all the time that we are the experts in the classroom.
The following are three questions I find useful to ask when judging the merits of an idea that might have a practical application:
• Is it believable? Ask yourself, based on your experience and thinking rationally, does this idea sound believable?
• Is it practical? An idea might sound rational and useful in theory, but can will it work in the classroom? When I first heard of multiple intelligences they sounded reasonable, but they failed the test of practicality when trialled in the classroom.
• Does it improve what I'm doing already? All ideas should be tested against the need to improve practice. For example, it might sound like a very good idea to give every child in the class a written target for reading, writing and maths. But will the extra work and time away from the children writing them really improve learning? Although Assessment for Learning, especially oral feedback, became a major part of our practice, we resisted writing up learning objectives and constructing layered targets.
Over the years I've been to many conferences where I've heard expressions such as, "the latest research indicates" or, "cognitive science tells us… Scans of the brain show…". I am always a little cynical and wary of experts telling me the answer. I get particularly annoyed when I read fellow teachers using the same strategies in their blogs. It is the main reason I liked Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School?; although it contained a lot of new thinking from the world of cognitive psychology, he never told me how to think or do my job as a teacher.
We should be very careful how we use research findings from cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists are a bit like those early explorers who set out to find a new route to India. Everything they discovered was new and exciting, but it didn't mean they knew what was coming over the horizon, let alone how the whole thing fitted together.
Compared to mapping the human mind, mapping the globe was a skip through the park. So let's have a sceptical view of the work cognitive scientists do, take what's useful and practical, and call their ideas what they are – theories rather than evidence. They won't mind.
Tim Taylor is a teacher working in Norwich, a visiting lecturer at Newcastle University and a trainer for mantle of the expert. He edits and writes for www.mantleoftheexpert.com and www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk.