ResearchEd: cognitive science in the classroom


This is the first half of a talk I’m giving today at the ResearchEd Birmingham event…

 Cognitive science might help us understand what works best in teaching and why


Imagine this: a super-intelligent interstellar species discover planet earth and humankind.

The first question they ask is: ‘Have they discovered evolution yet?’ A major landmark of intelligent civilisation is understanding why we’re here: evolution by natural selection.

The next question they ask is this: ‘Have they discovered how intelligence works?’ A next major landmark of intelligent civilisation is understanding intelligence itself.

That’s what cognitive scientists do. They seek to understand how the mind learns.

Today I’d like to share three ways that cognitive science has made my teaching simpler and clearer.

What I found most confusing when I started teaching, was students not remembering things they’d learned. I hear this question in the staffroom all the time: ‘why don’t they remember what they’ve been taught?


To understand why this happens, there are two models of memory and the mind that I’d like every teacher to know.


The first model of the mind is from Dan Willingham.


The crucial cognitive structures of the mind are working memory, a bottleneck that is fixed, limited and easily overloaded, and long-term memory, a storehouse that is almost unlimited. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Our teaching should minimise the overload of students’ working memories and maximise the retention in their long-term memories.


The second model of memory is Robert Bjork’s.


Storage strength and retrieval strength explain why we remember some things better than others. Storage strength is how well learned something is. Retrieval strength is how accessible it is.


For instance, do you remember your credit card number off by heart? Me neither. This has low storage strength; we never learned it in the first place; and low retrieval strength; we can’t access it at all. Another example: GCSE exams. If you were asked to re-sit your GCSEs tomorrow, would you be able to get the same grades? I wouldn’t! I crammed for them, so I could retrieve them for the exam but never consolidated all that physics very well. Cramming for exams is high retrieval, low storage strength. Take another example: languages. Have you ever spoken a language fluently? Are you’re still just as fluent as you were at your best? Hardly anyone is. It’s buried with high storage strength but low retrieval strength: you can’t access it as easily as you could, but you could pick it up quite quickly if you spent a small amount of time in the country. A final example: your phone number. Can you remember your own phone number? That’s mastered: it has high storage strength – you’ve learned it well, and high retrieval strength – you can easily recall it. Ultimately, we want to increase storage strength so that pupils can pick up whatever they need to later, even if it’s buried. Achieving fluency works better than cramming. Fluent French was mastered; is now buried; but can be quickly remastered. An A achieved in French GSCE by cramming can’t be so quickly remastered.


For today, I want to focus not on implications for curriculum design; or on the implications for teacher training; instead, I just want to focus on the sphere of influence of every teacher up and down the country: I want to focus on classroom instruction.


Out of a hundred years of research, there are three startlingly, deceptively simple insights that when applied well in the classroom, have very powerful effects. They are not jazzy, whizzy, flashy or sexy. Quite the reverse: veteran, old-school teachers have been doing them since time immemorial. They are not quick wins, silver bullets or revolutionary innovations. One drawback of them is that they require substantial subject expertise. They don’t promise to be the magic beans that will suddenly and dramatically cut our workload overnight. Instead, they offer something more modest: a chance to focus our teaching and improve our impact on learning…


I’ll post the second half of the talk tomorrow, with some of the questions and ideas raised in the discussion.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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12 Responses to ResearchEd: cognitive science in the classroom

  1. Sylvia Thomas says:

    It was great to read this post this morning Joe. I am trained as a science teacher but have been teaching maths for the last two years (that’s what you do as a headteacher I guess). I have found it a really interesting and challenging experience because of the lack of retention of basic skills and concepts that I have discovered – skills that have been taught to these children from year 1 onwards. I have a strategy that I have been developing called recap to retain and am beginning to see the fruits of this. We are also exploring the mastery learning ideas that the ARK schools have developed. I look forward to reading your next instalment tomorrow

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  4. dtjprime says:

    Reblogged this on dtjprime.

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  11. This is a comprehensive and helpful article.

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