Science of learning – ‘10 things every teacher educator should know’
At Teach First we’re committed to overcoming educational inequality by unlocking the potential in all children. When it comes to teacher education, we think a renewed focus on the science of learning has huge potential to get us to this goal. We explore this in the second of our '10 things every teacher educator should know' series.
Cognitive science is an important part of the science of learning. Professor Dylan Wiliam set EduTwitter alight two years ago with his view that Cognitive Load Theory is the ‘single most important thing for teachers to know’1. The concept of learning is commonly separated into learning as a product (tangible knowledge obtained through study, experience, or teaching), and learning as a process (the mechanisms by which this knowledge is acquired).
The science of learning concerns the learning process. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘cognitive science’ but the latter is a wider, interdisciplinary study of the human mind, combining ideas and methods from psychology, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and neuroscience. The science of learning draws from this broader field. Its importance to all educators is succinctly expressed by Daniel T Willingham, cognitive scientist and author of ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’:
“The more we know about learning and how it works, the more likely we will be able to make it happen.” (Willingham, 2017b)2.
Initial teacher education has traditionally exposed trainees to a broad range of learning theories, such as behaviourism, social learning theory and social constructivism; cognitive science has been a varied addition to the curriculum. Yet robust research on its critical implications for teaching has been widely known for some time, eg Sweller’s work on Cognitive Load Theory3. Looking back, I wish that the science of learning had played a more prominent role in my training – unfortunately, the gap between research and practice remains wide.
So it’s encouraging that knowledge of this area is a central part of the Department for Education’s new Early Career Framework for new teachers. It’s a real opportunity for all teachers to develop an understanding of the cognitive theories of learning and successfully apply them in class. But it also presents a challenge for current teacher educators and mentors whose own teacher education may have been lacking in this area. This is exacerbated by the complexity of applying this type of research evidence.
Cognitive scientists aim to isolate mental processes in the laboratory, thereby making them easier to study (e.g. retention of new information). But the ecological validity of such studies is a concern. We know that in a classroom there are many different mental processes happening simultaneously, often in unpredictable ways. Taking a research finding and working out how it can be applied to the classroom is not easy. Fortunately, there’s a scientific consensus around fundamental cognitive principles which, if understood and applied appropriately, can significantly improve teacher effectiveness. This could also reduce the likelihood that trainees will be attracted to neuromyths (misconceptions about the brain) such as the belief in learning styles.
If we really believe that every child deserves a great teacher, teacher educators need to develop their trainees’ knowledge of these principles and their ability to apply them in practice. And teacher educators can’t do this without understanding the science of learning and being able to apply it in their own work with trainees (who are also novice learners). We must practise what we preach and be explicit about what we are doing and why.
By explaining and demystifying, we empower new teachers, support the development of their mental models and reinforce the science of learning as a core and evidence-based part of teacher education. It can be gratifying, if somewhat unsettling, when your trainees begin to recognise and critique aspects of your own teaching practice – for example by commenting on the use of modelling or tasks designed to manage cognitive load.
For us to fully benefit from insights and evidence from cognitive science, the science of learning must be viewed not as a discrete topic, but as an evolving building block of teacher education and practice. The process of learning is integral to many of the most pressing questions that a teacher will ask and spans most aspects of teaching. For example, a good understanding of the science of learning can help teachers investigate and answer the following questions:
- How do students understand new ideas? How do students learn and retain new information?
- How do students solve problems?
- How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
- What motivates students to learn?
- What are common misconceptions about how pupils think and learn?4
Publications such as The Deans for Impact’s ‘The Science of Learning’ (2016) can assist educators in connecting these principles to the classroom. Teacher educators can do so much in the intersection between theory and practice, to guide and support trainees to improve pupil learning. The learning context, including the phase, subject and knowledge of the pupils to be taught, can all have a bearing on how evidence might be applied. By encouraging reflective practice, we can best ensure that strategies linked to cognitive principles are thoughtfully applied and evaluated for their impact on learning. As scientific understanding evolves, we want trainees who will actively seek up-to-date research and adapt their practice.
Case study: Drawing on the science of learning in practice
When working with a novice teacher, there’s a lot going on – it’s challenging to identify what will lead to the greatest improvement to their practice (and to decide how to get them there). I’ve found the principles of the science of learning to be an indispensable guide, both in keeping me focused on pupils’ learning and helping me determine next steps for a trainee. I’ve included a case study to illustrate how the science of learning can contribute to a trainee’s development. This is a deliberately generic example, which draw upon principles applicable across teaching practice, but it’s worth noting that certain applications of the science of learning are more appropriate to specific subjects or phases.
Case study: Managing cognitive load
As with many novice teachers, this trainee was full of enthusiasm and ideas. When it came to planning, this translated into lessons with lots of activities, unclear instructions and pupils who were overwhelmed by the number of things they were expected to hold in their heads.
As this lesson was going to be repeated for another class, we re-assessed it to eliminate unnecessary tasks and prioritise those which linked most explicitly to the learning objective. Then, to support pupils’ limited working memories, we created clear instructions for the task, so pupils only had to focus on a handful of “chunks” (ideas, processes or pieces of information) at any one time. Finally, my trainee practised (and re-practised) giving these instructions and modelling carrying them out.
After delivering the lesson again, the trainee said that it had been more successful. A significant reason was her increased confidence – knowing what she wanted pupils to learn and how she expected them to get there.
Case study: Getting pupils to attend to learning
My trainee’s abilities developed well, allowing her to plan lessons that both connected to prior learning and took into account the limited number of things her pupils could attend to at once. However, while pupils complied with basic classroom routines, they weren’t routinely paying attention to learning. This is problematic because attention is the primary gatekeeper of learning, insofar as we only learn what we think about. So I knew I needed to help my trainee develop ways of gaining and directing student attention.
I focused on re-establishing ‘Cold Call’5, a technique where the teacher asks a question then chooses a pupil to answer, ensuring all pupils have to think about the answer in case they’re called on. We formulated questions for an upcoming lesson, designed to guide pupils to critical ideas. My trainee then practised the ‘Cold Call’ technique with these questions and combined it with wait time, to allow pupils to think before answering.
On my next visit the trainee’s mentor commented that there had been a real transformation in the culture of her classroom and that her pupils not only expected to answer questions but were ready, sometimes even eager, to share their thinking.
Case study: Maintaining learning over time
In the spring, reflecting on a disappointing set of assessment results, my trainee expressed frustration at her pupils’ difficulties retaining knowledge over time. We revisited the idea that there is a difference between a student’s current performance and a persistent change in what they know. We then explored strategies that could help learning stick in her pupils’ long-term memories.
My trainee decided to plan regular, low-stakes quizzes to give pupils more chances to retrieve knowledge from long-term to working memory. She later combined this with other strategies such as spaced practice (leaving gaps of increasing length before returning to content). By the end of the first year, her students’ assessment outcomes improved – particularly those of her GCSE Year 10 classes. Even more importantly, she’d shared her rationale for choosing these strategies with her students and, by doing so, had begun building their capacity to regulate their own learning.
2 Sweller, J., Merrienboer, J.G van., & Pass, F.G.W.C (1998) Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design. Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 10, No.3
3 Willingham, D. (2017b) A Mental Model of the Learner: Teaching the Basic Science of Educational Psychology to Future Teachers. Mind, Brain and Education, 11(4)
4 Deans for Impact The Science of Learning (2016) (accessed 2.5.19)
5 Lemov, D. (2015) Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; technique 33, Threshold, p. 249
About the author
Gemma is Head of Curriculum Design for Teach First’s teacher development programmes. She previously worked as a teacher educator for Teach First in the South East and South Coast and is an experienced teacher and school leader. She’s also a Teach First Ambassador, who joined our programme to train as a teacher in 2005.
About this series
We train thousands of new teachers each year, but this is only around 5% of all new teachers. So we wanted to share some of the thinking behind our teacher education in this series of blogs. We hope these blogs will be helpful for the thousands of schools that support new trainee teachers each year, and act as a starting point for conversations with other teacher educators – so we can all keep learning and improving.
This is our current thinking but we’re always reviewing and learning from research, other organisations and practice. We want your views and feedback: What do you agree with? Is there anything you disagree with? What have we missed? Let us know on twitter – you can chat to our teacher education leads @FayeCraster and @Reuben_Moore (and we’re on @TeachFirst)