Research School Network: What is Cognitive Science? Our Research Associate, Angie Watson, discusses the fundamentals of ​‘cognitive science’ and how this knowledge is applied at BRS


What is Cognitive Science?

Our Research Associate, Angie Watson, discusses the fundamentals of ​‘cognitive science’ and how this knowledge is applied at BRS

by Billesley Research School
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Cognitive Science is the study of the mind and how it works to solve everyday problems. What is particularly important for us, in an educational setting, is looking at how children are committing information that we’re teaching them, and how it is transmitted from their working memory into their long-term memory.

The EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) released some guidance on how we can approach this system in the classroom. It is true that existing research in the classroom setting is limited, however, the research that does exist was broken down into 5 key concepts: space learning; interleaving; retrieval practice; managing cognitive load; and dual coding. These processes are not to be conducted in isolation but, looking at them separately, and how you can put them together in your pedagogy, is the best way to approach them.

We decided to use cognitive science at Billesley Research School, for two reasons. Firstly, anything we can do to benefit pupils in committing knowledge to long-term memory is going to have a beneficial impact on their learning progress. Secondly, using cognitive science to bolster one’s longer-term memory is proving successful, with many articulating that cognitive science is the future”. Relatedly, Cambridge University recently highlighted cognitive science as one of 12 principles of the future of education, proof that this mode of scientific study is here to stay.

At Billesley, cognitive science was initially discussed in Summer 2022, while looking at an action research study in school, whereby we were using reflective knowledge in order to improve pedagogical performance. In doing so, we were following the EEF Implementation Guidance report, and were mindful of its guiding principles: Explore – define the problem you want to solve and identity appropriate programmes/​practices to implement; Prepare – create a clear implementation plan, judge the school’s readiness to deliver, and prepare staff and resources; Deliver – support staff, monitor progress, adapt strategies; Sustain – plan for sustaining and scaling an intervention from the outset and continue to acknowledge/​nurture its use. At the launch in September, by way of introduction, we broke down each of the 5 aforementioned sections (space learning; interleaving; retrieval practice; managing cognitive load; and dual coding) across the academic year, allowing time for what they were going to look like. It was important to ask ourselves: what are the challenges? What is the impact? We came together and discussed how we would progress further ahead.

We discovered that an important component of cognitive science is retrieval practice, a strategy in which learning is enhanced and boosted by bringing information to mind. This act of deliberately recalling information forces us to unpack’ our knowledge and examine what we know. Retrieval practice can be tested in 3 different ways: Throwback Thursday’, with a few questions and answers having been learnt last week, last half-term, or even last year. This practice can be tested with items such as flashcards’, a strategy which is particularly useful for learning vocabulary in MFL, and Braindom’, a brain training game which makes use of different images and key vocabulary. The pupils are free to use their immediate recall to tell us anything at all that they remember. Whether or not the pupils can figure out the answers to all the brain teasers that this game provides, pupils are encouraged to articulate anything that they can remember from these recent activities.

We also use a technique called Space Learning’, notably in Geography and History lessons, where pupils are asked: what can they remember? We also make use of brain breaks’ (mental and physical activities designed to break up a period of concentration) and dual-coding (essentially the combination of words and visuals) to enhance Maths lessons.

When it comes to implementing these strategies, we need to ask ourselves what is the process and what is the impact, not just on pupils, but also on teachers, and pedagogy in general. We must also be mindful of the fact that cognitive science principles are not age or year group specific. The ways of approaching retrieval practices are different, it’s never a case of one size fits all’.

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Angie Video Interview - Cognitive Science (YouTube)
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Recommended Further Reading: Lovell, O. (2020) Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action. Melton: John Catt Educational Limited

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