Research School Network: Cognitive Science and Autism Sarah Cutler, Teaching Assistant at Billesley Primary School, looks at Cognitive Science and understanding learning with autism


Cognitive Science and Autism

Sarah Cutler, Teaching Assistant at Billesley Primary School, looks at Cognitive Science and understanding learning with autism

by Billesley Research School
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At Billesley Primary School, Cognitive Science (CS) has been at the forefront of our action research in school, and our main focus in CPD sessions. I was first introduced to this learning theory in September 2022. Fascinated and intrigued by this research into how children are committing information, and how it is transmitted from their working memory into their long-term memory, I wanted to learn more, and what better way to do that than to make it the subject of my dissertation.

Working at the time within our Resource Base, I focused on whether CS assisted children with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) in acquiring and retaining knowledge. One of the most important questions educational research projects can ask is how do children learn?’. If we understand how children with ASC process and retain information, then our approaches to teaching can be adapted accordingly, increasing effectiveness. My dissertation explored CS and its effect in the classroom, regardless of the children’s background. By gradually developing our acumen of cognitive load and memory, then applying this new understanding in our classroom practices, we have the potential to improve learning development for all children.

It was important to research other learning theories to understand why CS would be suited to children with ASC. Learning is a process that leads to change, which occurs as a result of experience and increases the potential for improved performance and future learning’ (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 3). Theory in education is an overall term which encompasses, in fact, a multitude of theories exploring the application, interpretation, and purpose of learning. Theoretical concepts help to expound the learning process, having the capacity to inform educational practices, curriculum, and assessments. Learning theories explain different ways in which children learn by centring on internal and/​or external influences which can affect the process of learning. The literature suggests the learning process can be convoluted, as such there are numerous theories which explain different approaches to learning, with three main types being repeatedly utilised in literature, namely: behaviourist; constructivist; and cognitive.

A behaviourist’ learning theory suggests children respond to stimuli within their environment. With this type of approach, it is important that practitioners support learning by providing an engaging environment for the children. The literature proposes Pavlov and Skinner as the two principal exponents of behaviourist learning theory and that they were both associated with the terms classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning’’ is the theory that children learn through association by linking two stimuli together to produce a new learning experience. Research suggests if a child links negative emotional experiences with school this can have defeatist results, such as causing a phobia of school. Furthermore, it is suggested this hypothesis is deterministic, it will not allow for children to express self-sufficiency.

Operant conditioning’ is the theory normally accredited to Skinner (1965): the consequences of a response (usually positive) determine the probability of children repeating it. The hypothesis of operant conditioning behaviour is that if teachers reinforce positive behaviour with reward, it will be repeated. By contrast, behaviour which is punished will occur less frequently. However, several studies have revealed operant conditioning does not consider the role of inherited and cognitive factors which can affect learning. A key point for this argument is that there are crucial differences in behaviour between young children, those with SEND, and older children. A one-size-fits-all approach does not support these differences.

Constructivism’ is a learning theory which suggests children construct knowledge rather than just taking in information by rote. There are two main types of constructivism: cognitive constructivism’, developed by Piaget; and social constructivism’, established by Vygotsky. The research around cognitive constructivism’ shows, as children experience the world and by reflecting on those experiences, they create depictions and absorb new information into their pre-existing schemas. Social constructivism is a learning theory concerning a collaborative process. It proposes that knowledge develops from children’s interactions with their society and culture. The literature asserts that the main responsibility for teachers using this approach is to create a problem-solving, collaborative environment where the children are active participants in their own learning. However, research shows a big disadvantage of this method is a lack of structure for the children. In order to reach their potential, some children require highly structured learning environments. It can be argued this is exceptionally true of children with ASC.

Cognitive science (CS), as a subset of cognitivism, is the examination of how the mind works, behaves and functions. CS requires applying various existing disciplines including neuroscience, philosophy, education, or artificial intelligence to understand how the brain makes decisions or performs a task. The most important aspect of this for educators concerns the processes by which all of us commit information to our memories and how we learn. The literature demonstrates that CS offers multiple principles of learning which teachers can use to impact the children’s learning development and help them to manage CS in the classroom. Some of the principles which have been used at Billesley are: spaced learning; interleaving; and retrieval practice.

Spaced learning’ proposes that it is easier for children to learn when a session is separated by an inter-study interval. The inter-study interval can be brief, lasting just minutes/​seconds or exceptionally long, lasting for weeks/​months. Several scientific theories have sought to elucidate the benefits of spaced learning for long-term retention. One theory proposes inter-study intervals may aid the amalgamation of memories, thereby cementing the forming of new knowledge obtained from new subject material. Spaced learning spreads out sessional activities over a period of time and can be executed in a variety of ways. Overall, the research shows spaced learning in sessions, such as Maths and Science, has a small, positive effect on learning development in comparison to massed practice in those subjects.

The research describes a subsection of spaced learning called interleaving’, which, put simply, is when session tasks are intertwined. Interleaving comprises sequenced learning tasks where like units are interspersed with units of a distinctive character, rather than the teacher presenting them back-to-back. Interleaving during sessions involves the children switching between tasks/​topics which require different, but related, knowledge and skills. Like its counterpart, spaced learning’, interleaving’ can be utilised within or across sessions. The literature suggests interleaving could support learning of the deep’ aspects of sessions. However, there has been a small amount of research published on the use of interleaving across all curriculum subjects. The existing research for the use of interleaving and its benefits across the curriculum appear less certain and our understanding of this theory is currently relatively limited.

Another aspect of CS is retrieval practice’. This relates to the ability to recall taught information from memory without revising or recapping the information. The research around CS suggests when children actively generate responses from memory, and receive quick feedback, their learning is more likely to be effective. However, retrieval practice can also include support in the form of hints, scaffolds, and contextual information. A realistic way of establishing this in a busy classroom environment is the use of quiz questions and short test papers. The research, which incorporates a wide range of ages and subjects presented in the results, suggests retrieval practice tends to be more effective than restudying subjects. It may therefore be concluded that retrieval practice might have wide applicability across all curriculum subjects.

The above findings indicate the potential of using CS in the classroom. Overall, the literature supports CS as an area of learning theory which can productively inform educational policy and practice. For the desired effect of maximising learning and improving teaching, CS needs to be interpreted and used appropriately by teaching staff, therefore regular CPD is essential to its use.

Research shows autism is widely understood to be a brain disorder which affects how children, young people, and adults, interact with others. The literature proposes that children with ASC process information differently to their peers without ASC. Research conducted by Watanabe and Rees (2017) demonstrates that the brains of children with ASC show a reduction in coordinated activity. Furthermore, they discovered children with ASC showed more random activity in the sensory areas of their brains compared to their peers. This suggests the brains of children with ASC cannot retain information or process added information in the same way as neurotypical children.

Cognitive approaches are an important part of learning and nurturing effective teaching, described as the mental processes of understanding, knowing, and learning. As previously stated, the brains of children with ASC struggle to hold onto information, and learning new material takes up substantial capacity in their working memory. CS uses approaches which optimise the retrieval of information from long-term memory. The literature shows basic theories from CS convey several principles for effective teaching and learning. These principles include spaced learning over a longer period, using scaffolds to support the children’s problem-solving by presenting information verbally, and visually. Further to this is the use of dual coding. Dual coding supports the theory that working memory has two components, one concerns spatial and visual information, and the other relates to auditory information, thus suggesting learning could be more effective if information is presented in pictures and diagrams, with an auditory background. Although there is no one definitive method of supporting children with ASC, the importance of using visual aids and concrete teaching supports is widely upheld. All of this affirms the proposal that the use of CS principles in the classroom could benefit children with ASC.

Thinking of my own metacognition, I have found by choosing CS as a focus for my dissertation, I have enhanced my own professional development, thus informing my future career as an Early Years teacher. Through this dissertation, I have looked closely into CS and its many strategies. I have researched the benefits of its use and have learnt valuable lessons about using it within sessions. All of the above has bettered my own professional practice and supports my own development as I start teacher training next year. I urge anyone working with children, especially those with ASC, to consider using CS within their practice. 


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