Embracing Cognitive Psychology in Education

I recently attended a presentation, at the ResearchEd conference in Dubai, listening to teacher, leader and author Robin Macpherson discuss cognitive psychology. In his presentation, which you can read more about here, Robin posed some very interesting questions that I have been thinking about and reflecting on. Robin made the point that there has been an increased interest in cognitive psychology amongst educators in recent years and this is certainly true. However, some of the psychology linked to memory that we are now discussing, sharing, reading and writing about is not actually new at all.

Take the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve as a key example. I was only introduced to the forgetting curve in recent years and I know other educators that are not familiar with this at all. I initally assumed it was a modern piece of research when in fact the work of Ebbinghaus dates back to the 1800s! Cognitive Scientist Daniel T Willingham posted a video on YouTube entitled Learning Styles Don’t Exist back in 2008 but in 2010 as a trainee, I was being instructed to plan my lessons based on the different learning styles in my classroom.

Taken from Love To Teach: Research and Resources for every classroom.

So why the interest in cognitive psychology now? Why wasn’t this discussed during my PGCE course in 2010? Is this being discussed with trainee teachers and NQTs today? Will we still be as interested in this field in 5 years? I don’t think this is the latest fad to hit education simply because it is so important – understanding how memory works and how children learn is at the core of education.

During his presentation, Robin asked the teachers in the audience if cognitive psychology featured as part of their initial teacher training course. One teacher raised her hand but she was a psychology teacher, therefore, it was explored as part of the content of the course she would be teaching. The psychology teacher in the room stated that she had always been surprised that her colleagues (that don’t teach psychology) didn’t know this information about memory because in her opinion it is absolutely essential for teachers to know this information and I agree.

My colleague and friend Louise is a psychology teacher. I feel fortunate that I have been able to ask her questions if ever I am confused or unsure after reading any complicated research linked to memory. She is very helpful and I learn a lot from her. Together we delivered a presentation to our colleagues about cognitive psychology and how it can be applied in the classroom. Louise began discussing the multi-store model of memory and the working memory model. Then I gave examples of retrieval practice in the classroom, you can read my retrieval practice post here.

My Retrieval Practice Challenge Grid resource.

In my book, Love To Teach: Research and Resources for every classroom, I wrote about the TPACK model. People interested in Edtech will likely be familiar with this model which builds on the work of Lee Shulman (1986) and suggests teachers need to have strong Technological knowledge, Content (subject) knowledge and Pedagogical knowledge. You can read more about the TPACK model here.

I decided to add another element (or circle) to the TPACK model which focused on Cognitive knowledge, creating the TPACCK model. I believe when teachers have a good grasp, meaning knowledge and confidence, of all four of those factors then the sweet spot for teaching and learning can be achieved. I also think it is a useful CPD model with training in regards to technology in the classroom, subject-specific professional development, focus on pedagogy and understanding how cognitive psychology can enhance teaching and learning.

In addition to learning a lot about cognitive psychology from my colleague Louise, educators on Twitter and at educational events I have also read some very insightful, interesting and informative books. I have suggested and briefly discussed a range of fabulous books (in no particular order) that are very useful for any teacher looking to engage with and learn more about cognitive psychology.

The Ingredients for Great Teaching – Pedro De Bruyckere 

I loved reading this book.

The author De Bruyckere is an educator and researcher well-known for debunking educational myths like learning styles and the pyramid of learning. De Bruyckere is able to explain complicated concepts and theories in a very easy and accessible way which is not patronising but very useful. This book is an easier and lighter read than some of the others suggested. His personality and sense of humor shine throughout which made this book all the more enjoyable and memorable.

I was very excited to meet DeBruyckere at ResearchEd Dubai – I was unable to listen to him present as I was presenting at the same time, much to my disappointment ( but he did sign my copy of his book!). I think this book would be a very good starting point for someone wanting an introduction to educational research and how cognitive psychology can support teaching and learning. You can order this book here. You can also check out his educational myth-busting blog here.

Psychology in the Classroom. A Teacher’s Guide to What Works – Marc Smith & Jonathan Firth

This book was very influential in regards to the research I carried out for my book. I reference and credit this book many times within Love To Teach.

The authors have different chapters that they write based on their areas of expertise. I particularly liked that Jonathan is a psychology teacher, therefore, has the subject knowledge but also the experience of being a classroom teacher and can explain how this cognitive knowledge and understanding can be put into action.

This book goes beyond memory as chapters include a focus on cognition, creativity, emotions, motivation, independent study and more. You can order this great book here.

Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T Willingham

This book is probably the most well-known book on this list and lots of educators will be familiar with the work of Willingham. The title of the book could possibly be misleading as the focus isn’t really about why students don’t enjoy school, the book explores and delves into the key aspects of the science of learning. The second part of the title – A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works And What It Means For the Classroom – is a more accurate description of the book but perhaps not as catchy!

This is a very powerful book that I would highly recommend. Willingham isn’t a teacher but does recognise the value of sharing and communicating this vital research and knowledge of how the mind works with educators.

You can order this book here.

Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide-Yana Weinstein & Megan Sumeracki with Oliver Caviglioli

If you are not familiar with the Learning Scientists then you must check out their website. They have free downloadable materials for teachers, parents and students. There are blogs, podcasts, videos and more.

The Learning Scientists focus on six effective study strategies as shown in the infographic below. You can read my blog post about dual coding here.

Their book, illustrated by the master of dual coding Oliver Caviglioli, digs deeper into these different study strategies. Like their website, there is specific advice for teachers, parents and students. If you are already familiar with their work and website then it is highly likely you will find their book incredibly useful, educational and easy to comprehend. The glossary of terminology was also a great idea! You can order this book here.

What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology – David Didau and Nick Rose

I have read several books by David Didau, all very thought-provoking and I always learn something new. Didau teams up with educational researcher and writer Nick Rose for this brilliant book. Again, this book would be an ideal starting point for teachers not familiar or very confident with psychology. If you have read some of the other books suggested then it is likely you’ll be familiar with a lot of the content in this book but you may still learn a lot. I found the section on cognitive load theory (CLT) very helpful as initially I was struggling the complexities of this theory. You can order this book here.

Make It Stick. The Science of Successful Learning – Peter C Brown. Henry Roediger. Mark A McDaniel

Another well-known and classic book which has been popular amongst the educational community. This book was actually published in 2014 but is still going strong and I wish I read it sooner.

I work closely with my students to help prepare them for exams and this book helped me gain insight as to what the most effective revision methods are and which strategies to ditch (I also suggest reading the work of Professor John Dunlosky too). I made a lot of notes whilst reading this book that I referred back to. I ordered Make It Stick after reading so much buzz and hype around it online. It did not disappoint.

You can order this book here.

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning – Pooja K Agarwal & Patrice M Bain.

Dr. Pooja K Argawal is the creator and curator of the excellent website and Patrice Bain is a very experienced teacher and writer. They are colleagues and combine their knowledge, experience and interest in cognitive science for this book.

I am very lucky as I have been able to read a special preview copy of this book which is not yet released but it is certainly one to watch!

I won’t give too much away but whilst this book does focus a lot on retrieval practice, as would be expected based on their expertise, there are other chapters that explore different areas linked to the science of learning including spacing, interleaving, dealing with exam anxiety and how to educate students and their parents about the science of learning  – which is essential. This was another engaging and informative read. Teachers can read a chapter at a time, in addition to reading and returning to at their convenience. You can pre-order this superb book here.

I must state that even though I have read all of the books above, a lot of this reading and research was carried out as part of the process of writing my own book and a chapter which focused on cognitive psychology. I certainly don’t think all of the books I have suggested need to be read as there will be a lot of repeated content – although it did help with my understanding reading different sources, examples and explanations.

Also, despite undertaking a lot of reading, research and general interest in this area I am not claiming to be a cognitive scientist or expert in this field. I consider myself to be a research-informed teacher. I believe in order to be research-informed in education we must learn about memory and how children learn.

Robin shared an anecdote about our mutual friend Mark Healy, a graduate and teacher of psychology for 25 years. Mark told Robin that even now he struggles to understand some of the nuances of working memory – yet everyone on Twitter is apparently an expert. I think Mark is making a fair point. This field can at times be oversimplified or not explored enough. We still have a lot to learn.

I am fascinated with cognitive psychology and other areas of psychology too. In addition to my personal interest, it has also transformed my teaching practice. As a result, I have changed how I plan and deliver not just a lesson but a sequence of lessons across the curriculum. I feel more confident with my teaching but it is clear the effective study strategies like retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding plus others do actually work and support the learning process.

As a profession, we should embrace and welcome cognitive psychology but as Robin warned we should also take caution before we do fully apply it to our classroom practice. We should be critical and reflective, learning from mistakes of the past with neuro-myths such as brain gym and learning styles! If you are a senior or middle leader is cognitive psychology part of your professional development model? If not, I think it should be.

It is wonderful that educational researchers, psychologists, scientists and teachers are finally working together. Cognitive psychology isn’t the silver bullet to fix everything in education as I stated in my book … research is one piece of a complex puzzle when it comes to working with children in schools.

One thought on “Embracing Cognitive Psychology in Education”

  1. Mohamoud says:

    Excellent blog. Thank you for sharing this.

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