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School Resources

What teachers should know about knowledge and learning

By Dr Nina Hood

While there remain debates regarding how one chooses to theorise learning, for me, the cognitive perspective offers a powerful way for thinking about knowledge and learning in schools and beyond. Rather than producing a narrow perspective on what constitutes learning as some would argue, I find that it in fact acknowledges the complex range of factors that influence and shape learning and recognises the need for varied pedagogical approaches in order to achieve the richness of learning we aspire to in school-level education.

There have been a number of accessible texts written about the key tenets of the cognitive perspective of learning (see for example Willingham or Schneider and Stern). In this short article I share what I consider to be some of the key things that I believe teachers should know about knowledge and learning.

1. Knowledge comprises content, concepts and skills. The development of skills such as analysis and critical thinking is dependent on extensive content knowledge. What’s more, learning becomes most powerful when content, concepts and skills are taught together and students understand how they relate to and intersect with one another. 

2. The structure of knowledge matters. Therefore, it is not just the quantity of knowledge a person holds but also the quality of that knowledge and how it is structured – both during the learning process and within an individual’s long-term memory – that influences what they can do with it. The knowledge structures and therefore cognitive capacities of novices are significantly different to those of experts. Experts hold hierarchical knowledge structures in their area of expertise which enables them to more readily think abstractly and understand the deep structure of problems.

3.  You cannot learn something for someone else. Learning is an activity carried out by the individual learner. However, a range of individual, social and contextual factors influence what and how we learn at any given moment as well as what we subsequently can do with the knowledge that we’ve learned (see points 4-8 below).

4. We learn in relation to what we already know. A student’s prior knowledge and experiences, their cultural perspectives and background, and their family and broader social environment all influence the learning process. This is why it’s critical that teachers unearth students’ prior knowledge of a topic and adapt their teaching accordingly as well as utilise formative assessment practices to understand students’ learning as they progress through a particular lesson or topic.

5. Emotions influence learning. This helps to explain why school culture and a students’ sense of belonging at school are so crucially important to student outcomes. Similarly, if a student is stressed, hungry, sad, angry or frustrated, their ability to learn is diminished. Furthermore, a students’ sense of self-belief (which importantly is in part impacted by the expectations and beliefs of their teachers) also influence learning.

6. The relationship between motivation and learning is bidirectional. Motivation supports and enhances learning. However, learning and feelings of accomplishment or competence also help to build motivation. This is why ensuring students regularly experience success at school is so important for their ongoing learning and achievement

7. Self-regulation and metacognition support both knowledge acquisition and the use of knowledge. However, they are not ends in themselves, and are most effectively taught and learned in connection to specific content.   

8. The learning environment matters. This encompasses both the social and the physical environment of learners, which includes such things as the design of the curriculum, how time is used across a year, term, week or individual lesson, how new information is framed, a lesson’s structure, the choice of tasks and materials, or how students work together in a group. While more informal learning environments can support self-regulation skills and the application of knowledge, in general, students benefit from more formal and structured learning settings, including an awareness of the learning goals and the reasons behind particular learning activities.

7. Students generally need to be supported to apply knowledge flexibly and adaptively in new contexts. Students require concrete content knowledgeand well-integrated hierarchical knowledge structures in order to routinely apply knowledge and engage in higher order thinking skills. However, they also need well-crafted opportunities, such as engaging with meaningful real-life problems, to achieve the adaptive expertise and rich learning opportunities to which our education system aspires.

8. Building complex knowledge structures takes time and effort. This is not to say that learning cannot and should not be fun or that all learning should be a struggle. Rather as Schneider and Stern suggest ‘time and effort invested in practicing problem-solving and extending one’s knowledge base are among the most important factors influencing the success of learning’, and knowledge is both hugely interesting and crucial for helping us to understand our world, why it is the way that it is and our place in it.

While there undoubtedly are many more key ideas from cognitive science about learning and knowledge that are relevant to teachers and teaching, hopefully this list may serve as something of a starting point for teachers at the beginning of the 2021 school year to think about what they teach and how they teach it as well as the reasoning behind their curriculum and pedagogical choices.

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