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Countering common misconceptions about cognitive perspectives of learning

Cognitive perspectives of learning, sometimes known as the science of learning, tend to engender strong opinions. For some, it is a revelation that leads to new approaches to teaching and learning in their classrooms. For others, it is considered to promote overly restrictive, top-down and boring learning. Perhaps in keeping with such oppositional views, discussions frequently fall prey (on both sides) to binary thinking and misconceptions about what a cognitive approach to learning does (and does not) suggest about pedagogical approaches in schools.

This article explores some common misconceptions about cognitive perspectives of learning and associated pedagogical practices.

1. The cognitive perspective of learning focuses on the rote learning and memorising of facts

It is true that in a cognitive approach to learning, content knowledge is considered essential, and that the acquisition of factual knowledge typically proceeds skills. That is, trying to teach students skills such as critical analysis or synthesis is impossible if they do not first have a sound understanding of the content they are analysing or synthesising. What’s more, it is critical that the information students are thinking critically about or analysing is not accessed from a book or the internet as and when they need it but rather that it is stored in their long-term memories. This is because our working memories have limited capacity and trying to remember factual information at the same time as analysing it creates too much cognitive load.

However, cognitive science also suggests that the application of knowledge through skills strengthens knowledge. The acquisition of facts is most useful if it is part of a hierarchical schema, (as opposed to isolated, random facts) as this is what enables deep problem solving. As a result, it is important that while ensuring students are accumulating the necessary content knowledge, teachers also put this information into its broader context, in order to create greater meaning for students. Research suggests that the use of real life problems can be a particularly effective way for building the types of deep knowledge and critical thinking we aspire to in our education system.

2. The cognitive perspective of learning does not recognise students as individuals

Daniel Willingham, in his book Why don’t students like school? posits that there is more that connects us (cognitively speaking) than separates us. Consequently, there is less need for teachers to focus on individualisation or personalisation than is often suggested. Instead, what is more important is ensuring that there is a carefully sequenced curriculum, which facilitates the cumulative building of knowledge.

However, a cognitive approach to learning does suggest that it is essential that teachers know their students as individuals. Of particularly importance is identifying the background knowledge that each student brings to a particular area of learning, and ensuring that all students have the request knowledge to enable them to engage meaningfully in learning tasks. Increasingly, cognitive science also is emphasising the important of socio-emotional factors, such as a sense of belonging and social connection for students’ learning. These primarily are built through a school culture that is focused on relationships, trust, and teachers getting to know their students.

3. The cognitive perspective of learning values knowledge over skills and other competencies

As misconception number 1 suggests, the cognitive approach to learning suggests we need to know before we can do (at least when dealing with biologically secondary knowledge). However, knowledge and skills are not dichotomous, rather they are two sides of the same coin. As the majority of skills are context dependent, the richest learning comes when the two are combined together. Furthermore, integrating a focus on metacognition (again in relation to particular content and tasks), further enhances students’ learning.

4. The cognitive approach to learning does not support the use of inquiry learning

While it is true that the science of learning frequently is positioned in opposition to inquiry learning, a cognitive approach to learning does not in and of itself discount the value of inquiry learning. Rather it puts some caveats on how and when it is employed. Firstly, a cognitive approach to learning suggests that inquiry is most effective when students have a sound understanding of the topic of the inquiry. This is because the higher order skills that inquiry requires, as per points 1 and 3, necessitates strong background knowledge to be undertaken effectively. And secondly, students typically need support to be able to engage effectively in inquiry, including being scaffolded through the inquiry process. While students might understand the various generic steps they must go through when engaging in inquiry learning, the context-specific nature of skills such as analysis and critical thinking means that they need support to know how to effectively engage with these skills in relation to different inquiry topics.

Find out more about the cognitive approach to learning by exploring our science of learning resources.

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