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Teaching Issues

Have we been blinded by the cognitive science?

Cognitive science works right.

Retrieval practice. Spaced learning. Interleaving. Managing cognitive load. Dual coding. Working with schemas.

All of the above are, according to ‘research ed’ best practice strategies that we should all be implementing in our classrooms? Surely they are? Cognitive Science tell us this doesn’t it?

Hmmmmm….well…….maybe. But then again maybe not.

That is according to researchers at the Education Endowment Fund. These clever people have taken a good look at these ‘cog sci’ strategies in their report entitled: Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A review of the evidence.

Unfortunately according to this report, the evidence base for this ‘best practice’ is a little shaky. The EEF don’t seem to be as convinced as you might have been led to believe if you follow edu-twitter. It appears that here, these approaches are commonly shared and repeatedly liked.

According to the foreword of this EEF report,

Principles from cognitive science are neither myths to be discounted, nor silver bullets that directly translate into accelerated progress.

Education Endowment Fund(2021) Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A review of the evidence. p4

Hmmm – that isn’t a complete ringing endorsement is it. These cognitive science approaches are not a silver bullet that directly translates into accelerated progress. What? Did I just read that correctly? They do not directly translate into accelerated progress!

The Influence of Ofsted on cognitive science?

So, why are these approaches so popular then? Well, maybe they actually work for you in your own classroom and you have real evidence to prove that they do. Maybe you use them when you revise?

Or, maybe we are, yet again reacting to whim of the latest Ofsted framework and handbook. After all, Ofsted’s present inspection framework is underpinned by its published research in the document called, Education Inspection Framework: Overview of Research, which draws significantly on cognitive science. Here we are told:

It is, for example, becoming increasingly clear that using spaced or distributed practice, where knowledge is rehearsed for short periods over a longer period of time, is more effective than so-called massed practice, where we study more intensively for a shorter period of time. It is therefore good practice to block learning and practice over time, as this leads to better long-term retention of knowledge.61 A related practice is interleaving

DEF (2019) Education Inspection Framework: Overview of Research, p19

The report goes on to tell us how good retrieval practice is too.

Ofsted have recently been publishing subject research reviews. These are essentially the research that Ofsted think is important for different subjects. And, the research that they think is best practice. Being transparent, they have published their principles behind these reviews in a document called: principles underpinning curriculum research reviews. When you read this document it transpires that Ofsted actually use a cognitive science filter. They focus their research reviews looking for literature on cognitive science. Probably because it is so important. Right?

Not necessarily. Not at least, according to this EEF report.

The thing that is so confusing, is that Ofsted also tell us, in their principles document that they really do pay attention to the EEF.

Maybe they forgot to read this particular report?

What does the EEF report actually say about cognitive science approaches?

Well, I would advice you to read it. But, if you don’t have the time, here are some highlights. We are told:

The evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions (applied cognitive science) is limited, with uncertainties and gaps about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges.

Education Endowment Fund(2021) Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A review of the evidence. p7

We are also told that the evidence base for many of these strategies is shaky ie limited to particular age groups or subject areas. And, we learn that:

Some approaches – dual coding – are possible to implement poorly. While some studies positive impacts on pupil outcomes, there are also multiple studies showing null or negative findings.

Education Endowment Fund(2021) Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A review of the evidence. p7

What about individual techniques?

Spaced learning

This is an approach where you might space content or ideas across days or lessons. It might see pupils revisit a specific concept, idea, or topic several times over the course of one week, or once or twice a week for many weeks. 

In the report we are told that,

There are a significant number of studies showing that spacing across days and lessons can have a small positive impact on learning outcomes. Substantial variation is found between study results with a significant number showing either no impact or a negative effect. 

Education Endowment Fund(2021) Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A review of the evidence

We also learn that the studies that exist are from reading, vocabulary, science and maths…. not history.

Ok what about another popular technique then?

Interleaving

As I’m sure you know, this involves, sequencing tasks so that learning material is interspersed with slightly (but
not completely) different content or activities, as opposed to undertaking tasks through a blocked
and consecutive approach.

Here, the only studies available relate to maths. Here is moderate positive evidence that interleaving can better support Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 pupils to select appropriate solutions when solving mathematical problems.  

BUT, we are told, there is no evidence that these methods are transferable to other subjects.

What about retrieval practice?

Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice describes the process of recalling information from memory with little or minimal prompting.  So this might be, ‘remember all you can about X kids, without looking back through your books.’

The report tells us that,

When compared to no recap activity at all, the evidence for using quizzes is moderate and generally positive. 

Education Endowment Fund(2021) Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom: A review of the evidence

But we are also warned that there is no real evidence that proves that such practices can help students learn more subtle or higher order content beyond recall.

The report goes on to look at other techniques associated with cognitive science.. I raised a smile when I read that that old fashioned technique called ‘scaffolding’, seemed to work really well according to the evidence….

What are the implications of all of this?

This report makes interesting reading. It reminds us that there is no silver bullet in teaching. You need to work out work works in your own classroom, with your own pupils. Teaching history is complex and we are trying to get across complex ideas. We are not just trying to remember facts. Recalling substantive knowledge is an important part of history teaching. BUT, so is helping pupils acquire disciplinary knowledge via second order concepts.

Only you can decide what works best for you to help your pupils learn and make progress in history. Don’t be blinded by the cognitive science. Try out ideas and techniques for yourself and decide if they work for your pupils. Add them to your growing armoury of pedagogical approaches.

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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