Some considerations around the science of learning

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Some considerations around the science of learning

As I argued in my last insight article, I absolutely believe that all teachers and leaders need to know about the science of learning research and what it means for their teaching practice. They also need to be supported to integrate the science of learning principles into their teaching. However, I also believe that it’s important to recognise some of the potential limitations of how this body of research is being applied, and other areas of research that also need to be considered alongside it. Below are seven key points that I think need to be considered:

  1. Ensure students understand why they’re learning what they’re learning and give them plenty of opportunities to utilise the information they have learned (memorised) in higher order tasks.

While memorisation of content (moving information from episodic memory to semantic memory) is the first stage in the learning process, it is important that learning is not left there. To be able to retrieve information, while essential, is not enough. We also need to ensure that tasks require students to utilise that information to build conceptual understanding, and to engage in higher order thinking tasks that require them to use the information to create arguments, solve problems, and think creatively. They also need to have an understanding of why it is they are learning what it is they are learning and to be able to connect it to a purpose outside of themselves.

  1. Think carefully about the content being taught, when, and why it’s being taught.

Knowledge is central to the learning process. However, while the science of learning research offers insight into how the knowledge is best learned, it does not provide specifics on what that knowledge should be. Therefore, it is important for teachers to be thinking carefully about what knowledge they are teaching students, when they are introducing it, and why it is being taught. That is, the science of learning without strong curriculum thinking and curriculum design is unlikely to lead to the full range of outcomes we want to develop in young people.

  1. Make sure you are also building students’ executive functioning skills.

The ability to effectively engage in the learning process both at school and across the life course is reliant, in part, on executive function skills, those skills related to inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation. Unless teachers are also actively supporting the development of these skills in their students (and this can be done in and through the teaching and learning process), learning will be limited. 

  1. Emotions matter. Our ability to learn effectively is influenced by our emotions. This means, that if we’ve had an argument with a friend, slept poorly the night before, or not eaten breakfast, our ability to learn will be impaired. Similarly, unless students feel a sense of belonging at school and socially connected to their teachers and peers, their ability to fully engage in learning will be jeopardised.
  1. Recognise individual needs and pathways. The learning progression of any student is non-linear. It will go in fits and starts, accelerating and stalling at different times. Similarly, students come to school with different background knowledge, which impacts how easily they are able to engage with any given topic. And finally, while cognitively, the learning process of each student is more similar than it is different, different students are going to respond to different teaching approaches, different activities, and different topics in different ways.
  1. Understand the different stages of child development. Children at different stages of development are primed to learn in different ways and will need different types of learning activities and tasks.
  1. Efficiency is important but it’s not the only consideration. Much of the work being undertaken on applying science of learning principles in classrooms is focused, not unreasonably, on making the learning process as efficient as possible. And much of the time, this is exactly what we should want. Cognitive load theory, a cornerstone of the science of learning, tells us that explicit instruction, which breaks new learning into chunks, and supports the acquisition and application of new knowledge through a range of strategies including retrieval practice and worked examples, is essential. However, this does not preclude sometimes starting learning about a topic at a different stage of the learning trajectory, as long as teachers always go back to the beginning and ensure that the necessary surface level learning is undertaken. Similarly, guided inquiry, when used with the right topic and at the right time (in a topic and in students’ learning) can be incredibly powerful and successful.

As educators, we owe it to our students to provide them with the most effective teaching and learning environment we can. With everything we know at this point in time, this means understanding the science of learning research and being able to utilise it to inform how teaching and learning is structured in schools. The Education Hub has a range of easy to read resources introducing the science of learning. But you might also want to check out the work of Greg Ashman, Ollie Lovell, Deans for Impact, and Daniel Willingham.

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