Research School Network: Does cognitive science imply ​‘quick fixes’? Allison Carvalho, one of our Evidence Leads in Education, reflects on cognitive science and the learning environment.


Does cognitive science imply ​‘quick fixes’?

Allison Carvalho, one of our Evidence Leads in Education, reflects on cognitive science and the learning environment.

by East London Research School
on the

The education system seems to be like a motorway with just one lane: fast. Yet it’s full of different types of vehicles travelling at different speeds with different levels of fuel in their tanks. Some may stall and need assistance; they need to take different roads and that’s where they may meet someone like me.

Unfortunately, the fast lane is broadly designed for one generic type of vehicle. Useful principles from cognitive science can help learners, as the EEF’s report, Cognitive Science in the Classroom: A Review of the Evidence, states. However, as the foreword says, none can guarantee accelerated progress. But I sometimes think that quick fixes – daily six-week interventions that magically disappear difficulties – are both desired and expected. 


For those with learning differences, such turbocharging is not always sustained.

If you test for knowledge close to the time of learning, it will, of course, seem to be secure. There’s been less time to forget. Page 12 refers to studies that are further from the reality of everyday teaching, including ones where the outcomes are measured very close to an intervention.

The review (page 13) also refers to the emotional environment. I think patience is part of that. I’m not suggesting that I have infinite patience. I don’t. But I’m aware that the children I work with usually have substantial weaknesses in working memory. They don’t just need adults who understand how to minimise cognitive load. They need patient adults who are both willing to implement useful strategies again and again and to change ineffective ones quickly.

Impatience is the unspoken hurry up!” betrayed by our body language, or which leaks through the edge in our voices during a hard day when there’s so much to fit in. Impatience is the unsaid I’ve taught this 1,000 times, so why don’t you remember?”

Most of all, impatience implies that a child isn’t good enough. And children know it. But what are children not good enough, or too slow, for? How meaningful is any strategy in an emotional environment that they may find stressful?

Weakness in working memory doesn’t mean children can’t learn. However, it could mean that they need more time to learn, regardless of the amount of repetition, spaced learning, dual coding and retrieval practice in class. Unfortunately, they may only actually get more time when they leave fast lane of the school system altogether.

I wonder … Whose journey are they on anyway?

Now, before anyone thinks, Oh well, that’s easy for her to say,” believe me, it isn’t.

I’m one of those people who’s expected to fix’ learners who are struggling then send them back to the fast lane cured’ and ready to go.

I’m one of those people who’s easy to blame when they’re not. I’m one of those people who may not be believed when children have made progress because of what is – or isn’t – seen in class, which is, of course, a completely different learning environment.

Still, challenging though all of our jobs are, the experience of keeping up’ year after year is so much harder. It’s a shame grades 9 to 1 and a standard score of 100 aren’t awarded for resilience.

Allison Carvalho is a Specialist Teacher and Dyslexia Assessor at Kaizen Primary School in East London

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