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Research School Network: Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom – what does the review say? This blog reveals the overall findings of the EEF’s latest release: Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom


Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom – what does the review say?

This blog reveals the overall findings of the EEF’s latest release: Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom

Sometimes, the debate around a publication gets going long before it is launched into the educational maelstrom. This was certainly the case with the hot-off-the-press EEF evidence review, Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom, which arrived in inboxes late last week.

The conjecture and conversation around this report is perhaps unsurprising given that many vested interests are involved. These come both from those who base much of their practice on cognitive science principles or aim to convince others to do so, as well as those who are less convinced by the underlying evidence and its application to the classroom.

What I think this report does really well is to navigate a path that takes into account a wide variety of views and while giving useful guidance to teachers, doesn’t duck the problems. I think the EEF’s Chief Executive Professor Becky Francis puts it pretty well in the foreword:

As with much evidence, the key message here is the importance of nuance. Principles from cognitive science are neither myths to be discounted, nor silver bullets that directly translate into accelerated progress.”

Well quite. Rather than fueling one side of an oppositional debate, I think this report is a timely injection of nuance that will help shape the increasingly prevalent use of cognitive science principles in classrooms.

According to a survey referenced in the report, increasingly prevalent is no overstatement, with the survey finding that over 85% of respondents said that cognitive science strategies were central to their own approach to teaching. With this being the case, the more guidance teachers can receive in this area, the more likely it is that these strategies will be effective. 

This blog forms one half of a pair of blogs the Durrington Research School team are writing about the report, and for those interested in what the review says about specific areas of cognitive science research, please read the sister blog on our Class Teaching website.

The rest of this blog will focus more on the nature of the review itself and the pointers and challenges it throws up for those of us wrestling with how to implement cognitive science principles effectively.

Firstly, it is worth highlighting what sort of evidence the report reviews. The EEF makes it clear that this report focuses on applied cognitive science. In other words it examines research done by applying the principles of cognitive science in the classroom. This may sound obvious to some, but this is a crucial principle of the report. It is reviewing the evidence gathered from classrooms, rather than from laboratories or other tightly controlled environments. By doing so the EEF is bringing the review closer to the experience of teachers.

This undoubtedly has provided challenges. Not least due to the scarcity of studies that fit this criteria. For example, if we take retrieval practice, arguably the most commonly used teaching intervention connected to cognitive science, the evidence in the review is based on 21 studies, of which only one involved delivery by a regular class teacher (the rest being delivered by researchers in schools). Now, this is not cause to throw out your low-stakes quizzes, the conclusion here is still that they are worth doing, but it is well worth knowing how little classroom-based research provides the basis for retrieval practice. As the report says:

A lack of evidence is not the same as evidence that an approach is not successful. We should be cautious about concluding that because a principle is found to be ineffective in the lab or in one classroom context that it cannot be deployed effectively elsewhere.”

Which leads me to another key area of nuance explored by the report, which is that it recognises the importance of context to all of this. It recognises that one-size-fits all doesn’t exist in education, and as a result interventions that attempt to shoe-horn us into a very prescriptive way of working are likely to fail. The report makes the point that findings may not apply across different pupil age groups, subject areas and different schools. Therefore, the wisdom of teachers in knowing their classroom and their children remains a central tenet of applied cognitive science.

So, on to the main findings of the report. These are:

  1. Cognitive science principles of learning can have a real impact on rates of learning in the classroom. There is value in teachers having working knowledge of cognitive science principles. 
  2. 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.
  3. Applying the principles of cognitive science is harder than knowing the principles and one does not necessarily follow from the other. Principles do not determine specific teaching and learning strategies or approaches to implementation. Considering how cognitive science principles are implemented in the classroom is critical.
  4. Principles of cognitive science interact and should not be considered in isolation from each other, or without taking into account wider practical and pedagogical considerations.

I think I have largely covered the main points connected to the first three findings, and without sounding glib, I would really recommend reading the full report for the details. However, I would like to just pause on finding four before finishing. Classrooms are really messy places and we cannot, however much we may want to, isolate one intervention completely from the vast array of stuff that is going on at any one time. Therefore, before embarking on our latest cognitive science intervention it is worth stopping and thinking how it fits into the overall jigsaw that is our teaching. Where is its place? How does it fit with other cognitive science interventions going on? Have we considered the emotional responses it might engender? It can be easy to get caught up with a new intervention and this is a useful reminder to stand back for a second and consider the wider picture.

To support this type thinking, the report provides us with some of the possible factors that will affect the impact of cognitive science techniques. It says it is not an exhaustive list, but, it is pretty hefty. They are:

Cog Sci factors

Next time I’m looking to exemplify why classrooms are messy” I may well be using this table. For those looking to implement a strategy across a range of classrooms, or a school or a trust, it gives a timely reminder of why the success of the intervention will not be consistent. 

This though is in no way a reason to abandon the pursuit of implementing cognitive science principles in our classrooms. They still provide many of our best bets to ensure the rich and powerful knowledge we teach is retained and remains useful for the long-term. What it is, similar to this review, is a useful reality check to keep us from searching for the pre-made, fool-proof, unicorn intervention that isn’t really out there.

This review has given me much to think about and already the debate it has sparked has helped bring some bits of thinking around cognitive science together. It will ultimately be a useful tool in helping the profession implement these strategies in a manner that gives them the best chance of success. 

Chris Runeckles is Assistant Director of Durrington Research School and Assistant Headteacher at Durrington High School. He is leading training programmes next year on Metacognition and Teacher Development.

Durrington Research School is also running a multi-day training programme titled Using Cognitive Science in the Classroom. You can find more details and how to sign up here.

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