Cognitive Psychology – Apply with Extreme Caution

29th July 2013

I’ve always thought it interesting how, as a profession, we find the ideas of cognitive psychologists so beguiling and persuasive.

As a recently qualified teacher, I first heard of the work of Howard Gardner at an INSET day in the early 1990s, his ideas were presented as the latest thinking in brain science. We were told multiple intelligences, along with a cornucopia of other discoveries, were going to revolutionise teaching and learning. Schools were to become nirvanas where each class would be transformed into an optimal learning environment; Mozart playing softly in the background, an infusion of lovely smells wafting through the air, and every activity perfectly matched to a student’s individual learning styles and intelligences.

Mostly it was nonsense. Like phrenology – dodgy theories, based on dodgy science, repackaged and sold to mugs.

At the time, we didn’t know any better. We were told these ideas were designed by brain-experts, who conducted complicated experiments (some of them involving scanners) and had hard evidence (lots of numbers and images of the brain) that proved what they were saying was true. We might think it was nonsense, but really it was the future.

So, we set to work trailing the different approaches in our classrooms. Fortunately, in the school I worked in, we had a forward thinking head who encouraged experimentation, but was no mug and was prepared to listen if we thought something wasn’t working.

After a term most of the really wacky stuff was gone. Brain gym held on for a while, as the exercises did seem to help calm down some of the more ‘hyper’ children. But I was never keen. At times music (not always Mozart) could be heard drifting through the corridors, occasionally even the smell of the odd joss stick. One thing that stayed permanently was bottled water, that genuinely seemed to help, especially on hot days and I still carry a bottle around with me wherever I go, as a consequence my brain is constantly tuned and fully hydrated.

However, Gardner was a conundrum. Unlike the other ideas, which were practical (or impractical) applications of experiments or stuff made up in California, multiple intelligences was a respected theory written by a Harvard professor. While I felt confident to say, “Brain Gym is stupid”, after being told to rub my ‘brain-buttons’, I didn’t feel qualified enough to call Howard Gardner an idiot, at least not until I’d read his book. So I ordered, “Frames of Mind”.

I don’t know if you’ve read “Frames of Mind”, its a long book, over 400 pages, and serious. I didn’t enjoy reading it and can’t say I understood everything. The truth is it wasn’t written for teachers. I know this is true because I heard Gardner speak at a conference in the mid-90s where he said (something like), “My work is in psychology, it is up to educators to explore whether it has practical applications in the classroom.” I liked him when he said that and wanted to shout out, “It doesn’t!” But I didn’t have the nerve.

Nevertheless, it would have been true, at least from my experience. After reading ‘Frames of Mind’, and exploring its implications through the work I was doing in class, I came to two conclusions, one: it was a theory that needed more evidence from the field it belonged in, cognitive psychology; two: it had little practical application in the classroom and was not a very helpful way of thinking about learning.

For me it was a lesson learned: don’t trust cognitive scientists, they’re all charlatans.

Not really. But be very cautious and test every idea you think will be useful in the classroom, with real kids. As a teacher there is really only one question that matters: “Does this help the children learn better?”

Personally I apply this principle to all the theories that come out of psychology, whether I sympathise with the psychologist’s ideology or not. As a science it is still in its infancy, there is still much that is unknown, many competing theories and different models of the mind. In biology there are still some competing theories and ideas, still new discoveries to be made, but on the whole all biologists agree on the way things work through evolution. Similarly, you won’t find geologists fighting over plate tectonics. These are mature sciences, where the major theories are agreed on, by comparison cognitive psychologists are still arguing if the world is flat or round.

This is not to say we have nothing to learn from cognitive-psychology, not at all. As a teacher I have found many ideas from the field to be helpful and generative. Rather, we should be cautious and critical, judging each idea on its merits and remembering all the time that we are the experts in the classroom.

The following are three questions I find useful to ask when judging the merits of an idea that might have a practical application:

  1. Is it believable? This might sound like an odd question, but it can save a lot of time: I ask myself, based on my experience and thinking rationally does this idea sound genuinely believable? Brain Gym failed this test and burning joss sticks (although at least they smelt nice).
  2. Is it practical? This is extremely important. An idea might sound rational and useful in theory, but can I make it work in the classroom? When I first heard of multiple intelligences and learning styles they sounded reasonable, even democratic which was an important principle for me, but they both failed the test of practicality when trialled in the classroom.
  3. Does it improve what I’m doing already? All ideas need to be tested against the need to improve practice. It might sound like a very good idea to give every child in the class a written target for reading, writing and maths, but is the extra work and the time away from the children writing the targets really going to improve their learning that much or will it make things worse? This was the question we were asking ourselves in the late 90s after WALTS, WILFS and TIBS became the new orthodoxy in schools all over the country. They were almost obligatory, but did they really improve outcomes for children? We were unconvinced. Although AfL, especially oral feedback, became a major part of our practice, we resisted writing up learning objectives and constructing layered targets. For similar reasons we also rejected the Literacy Hour.

Over the years I’ve been to too many conferences where I’ve heard expressions like, “the latest research indicates… Cognitive science tells us… Scans of the brain show…blah, blah, blah” not to become a little cynical and wary of experts telling me this is the answer. I get particularly annoyed when I read fellow teachers using the same strategies in their blogs. It is the main reason I liked Daniel Willingham’s book, “Why Don’t Students Like School?” so much, because although it contained a lot of new thinking from the world of cognitive psychology, he never stepped over the line to tell me how to think or how to do my job as a teacher.

In my view, we should be very careful how we use research findings from cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists are a bit like those early explorers who set out to find a new route to India. Everything they discovered was new and exciting, but it didn’t mean they knew what was coming next over the horizon, let alone how the whole thing fitted together. As they sailed over the world’s oceans they had no idea how old it was or that the continents had been floating apart and crashing into each other for billions of years.

Compared to mapping the human mind, mapping the globe was a skip through the park. So let’s have a skeptical view of the work cognitive-scientists do, take what’s useful and practical, and call their ideas what they are – theories rather than evidence. They won’t mind.


Keep up-to-date with the latest news and projects.

Mailing List