Cognitive science: all in the mind?

About 15 years ago, as a secondary school headteacher, I worked with my head of maths to introduce a policy for all year groups in which pupils began almost every lesson with a quick 20-question quiz on a range of mathematical concepts. We reasoned that this helped to maintain practice in areas of maths which might not be the focus of the current week’s lessons, and we’d also heard anecdotally that this seemed to help to improve attainment in other schools that had tried it.

Long before this, when I was a beginning teacher 30 years ago (gosh that’s frightening!), I made sure that I supported my explanations of complex ideas using simplified diagrams: the water cycle and the blast furnace spring to mind. This seemed to be a reasonable approach to help children visualise and understand a complicated multi-stage process.

Similarly, I would use models to help them to picture relatively abstract ideas, such as kinetic theory or electrical flow and potential. I learnt (the hard way) that a model is of little use if they understand the metaphor even less well than the theory—so no point in persisting with a model of electrical potential as a head of water pressure!

We also planned teaching so that we’d revisit concepts frequently rather than just covering them once and expecting pupils to retain things.

Sometimes work seemed painfully slow, as work had to be covered in small chunks, each to be consolidated before moving on to the next. It was too much to try to cover a vast swathe of new ideas all in one go.

As we approached examination times I tried to summarise key ideas and their relationships in a single diagram: the aim was always to get a whole module onto one side of A4, run off through the gloriously smelling banda machine.

I didn’t have great reasons for doing these things. None was novel or unique.

Most of them seemed to be common-sense approaches to difficult problems. Some, like the diagrams, were time-honoured hand-me-downs from more experienced colleagues. Most, I think, worked to some degree. I certainly had no idea that some of these techniques might these days be labelled cognitive science approaches: retrieval practice, dual coding, spaced learning, managing cognitive load, and schemas.

Cognitive science is one of the current buzz-words in education. It’s referenced in both the Core Content Framework for initial teacher education, and the Early Career Framework for early career teachers. To some degree it has become a polarising topic, especially on social media, where the attitudes of some holier-than-thou proponents have served to alienate others who might want to take a more holistic approach to education.

One might be forgiven for thinking that a combination of a particular behaviourist approach, combined with a toolbox of cognitive science techniques, is all a new teacher needs to master the classroom (this certainly seemed to be the view of a former Schools’ Minister). In this context it was refreshing, if not exciting, to see the publication of the EEF’s review of the evidence for cognitive science in the classroom.

The EEF is nominally independent of, though funded by, central government: a charity committed to supporting the most disadvantaged children in our schools and finding ways to accelerate their progress. It’s become known for conducting and commissioning robust and reliable research on in-school interventions and programmes.

This review of cognitive science is a meta-study: a systematic review of what the available research tells us about various aspects of cognitive science; a review of contemporary literature on the theories of cognitive science; and a review of practice documents and school data to consider the classroom applications of cognitive science.

The result is a comprehensive and authoritative summary of cognitive science approaches.

A very brief description of our understanding of memory and some of the factors that might affect the impact of cognitive science is followed by individual discussions of the evidence for 7 different cognitive approaches. The emphasis is on applied cognitive science, which, as the report states, “reveals many problems not encountered in laboratory or tightly controlled conditions. Classrooms are ‘messy’ and complex.”

Each of these sections is broken down into typical strategies, and in turn each includes an example of use, a reference to relevant theory, a comment on what the evidence says, and importantly, what the evidence is based on: “2 studies”; “mostly maths”; “only half are delivered by regular teachers” and so on. In some cases there are comments noting that evidence is not yet available (and reminders that this is not the same as evidence of an approach being unsuccessful).

This review provides an outstanding resource for teachers thinking about or using cognitive approaches, but struggling with the black and white viewpoints of the evangelists and knockers.

It might cause you pause for thought if you realise the technique you’ve been encouraged to use in history doesn’t have good evidence to support it in subjects other than science. It might challenge the view that cognitive approaches should be used in every lesson, and equally might reinforce its use where there is solid evidence that it makes a difference. I’d like to think that it will help practitioners to construct what I’d call an effective bricolage pedagogy.


Being critical, in this concise document some of the examples used are so brief as to be confusing (for example on cognitive conflict) and would benefit from more explanation. Wielding my 1990’s teacher’s red pen I note some grammatical errors and the incorrect use of practise (twice!) that suggest a hasty publication and make me suck my teeth—but I’ll forgive Becky Francis just this once. The errors are small in the context of the overall document.

The report makes it clear that it is possible to implement some of the principles of cognitive science poorly.

I have long been interested in how “lethal mutations” (page 47) can develop from an originally sound basis. Infamously, teachers have suffered by wasting time on learning styles (as supported and evidenced by the Department), been lured into thinking that simply adding “yet” onto the end of a sentence actively develops growth mindset, or tortured themselves physically by taking part in brain gym exercises. As with all good theories and techniques there will be some who look to make a quick buck by churning out resources that are purportedly based on cognitive science but which actually become disconnected from the theory—this report warns against such snake oil.

So, will cognitive science be here today, gone tomorrow? Is it just teachers’ common sense? Is it all in the mind of its adherents, or is there a solid evidence base for its use? None of these questions can be answered with a simple yes or no. The important thing is that we gather the evidence to find out, and this EEF report demonstrates exactly why schools should not just attempt to become evidence-informed but also aim to be research-engaged, in order to generate more evidence, to be collected by researchers, collated by the EEF, and considered by practitioners.

Chris Rolph

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s