Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Distinguished Professor Viviane Robinson for a project we’re currently working on at The Education Hub. At the end of the interview, I asked Viviane for the number one thing she wants education leaders to know. Her response, the research on the science of learning. Why? Because, if as Viviane has long championed, instructional leadership is essential in schools and early childhood centres, then understanding the cognitive processes involved in the learning process is essential.
What does the science of learning research tell us about the learning process? At the heart of learning, is memory. Before we can engage effectively in higher order thinking on a topic (and just to be clear we absolutely want this to be happening), it is essential that we have encoded the information about which we are thinking into our long-term memories. This is because, any time we are processing information or ideas – either because we are engaging with new information, or we are using what we already know to do something new or solve a problem – we are using our working memory. Our working memories are characterised by their limited capacity, both in terms of how much new information they can hold at any given moment and by for how long they can hold it. That’s why if we try to take on board too much new information at once or try to master too many steps of an activity or task too quickly, we run the risk of overloading our working memory, which can lead to misinterpretation, forgetting key information, or general overwhelm. That is, when teaching, we need to manage the cognitive load of our students.
There have been many attempts over the past decade to use the science of learning research, much of which is based on studies undertaken in lab settings (although increasingly we’re seeing studies undertaken in classrooms), to inform teaching practices. Work on retrieval practice (recalling and reusing information from our long-term memories in order to consolidate the learning), spaced practice, interleaving, chunking, dual coding, and worked examples, are all examples of science of learning-informed pedagogical approaches, and there is good evidence to suggest that when effectively used in teaching, these practices can support student learning.
The science of learning research also tells us that the more we know on a topic and the stronger our cognitive schema, the more easily we can learn new information connected to that topic. That is, knowledge begets knowledge. This has profound implications for curriculum design in schools. It means that what (and how much) is taught, how this knowledge is sequenced, and how it is structured in ways that leads students to more sophisticated understandings are critically important.
As Viviane Robinson suggested in her interview, there is an argument to be made that much of the ideology and associated pedagogy commonly found in New Zealand schools is not informed by the science of learning research (and in many instances runs counter to it). It is true that like any area of research, research on the science of learning is fallible, open to misinterpretation and misrepresentation, and alone is not enough to provide everything one needs to know about teaching and learning. However, I believe that all teachers and leaders need to know about this research and what it means for their teaching practice.
It is not the answer to all our problems, but the science of learning research does provides a set of well evidenced principles that should be informing the approach to teaching and learning in all schools. This does not mean that every school or every classroom will look the same. But it should mean that every classroom is structuring teaching and learning in ways that are most likely to ensure that every child will succeed in their learning. And achieving that would have a profound impact on the life trajectories of our young people.