Applying the CogSci – examples from across the curriculum. #EdFest

As I engage with more teachers and hear more presentations from people exploring ideas from cognitive science, I find more and more coherence emerging around the central ideas about learning and memory; I also find wider resonance across curriculum areas as people explore the all-important question: how does this apply to my context? This was the theme of my talk at this year’s online Education Festival.

Models of learning

Ideas about learning come from various quarters and I love how they link up. Far from representing some kind of simplistic reductive model that confines us – as some rather fatuous strawman army merchants would have you believe – there’s a wealth of thinking that flows from and into Dan Willingham’s model and thinking from Why Don’t Students Like School. Graham Nuthall’s insights regarding the importance of prior knowledge, the SOI (select-organise-integrate) model as employed by Fiorella and Mayer in their work on generative learning, ideas from dual coding promoted by Oliver Caviglioli highlighting non-linear visuospatial aspect of thinking alongside the linear phonological aspect – all combine to give us a rich view of the schema-building process – the learning – that happens in multiple scenarios. Shimamura gives us insights in MARGE about the need to stimulate ‘top down processing’ if we want all students to be successful in learning, intentionally focusing their attention in a productive manner – it all adds to the mix; it all ties together.

A coherent simplified model with practical implications.

When you connect it all together into an overall model .. it helps to provide an underpinning rationale for the in-class practices of effective teachers as explored by Rosenshine and others. Each of Rosenshine’s Principles can be explained in terms of the simple memory model and the need for teachers to find out what their students understand in order to adapt their teaching in the most effective, dynamic way. Similarly, the common reasons for students struggling to learn can be explained by this model and that helps to focus on specific solutions. Each of the principles has a reason; a ‘why’. Willingham’s ideas about why students don’t like school – essentially because the problems and task are not mentally stimulating enough or, conversely, not accessible or meaningful enough based on students’ concrete experience and prior knowledge – link directly to Rosenshine’s guided practice, high success rate and independent practice; to scaffolds which are necessary at first but which must then come down.

Checking for Understanding in Science

In this example, we explored how understanding why your heart beats faster during exercise is something that builds over time as additional layers of complexity are explored over the years in a spiral curriculum – starting very young. The language we use to describe body parts, structures and processes initially has to build on concrete, tangible experience. Then we need models for things we can’t see – we need to imagine processes and form mental models of how they work and explain the things we do see. The knowledge needed to explain the function of an alveolus is extensive – conceptual, spatial, declarative, procedural, narrative. A neatly labelled diagram doesn’t in itself represent successful learning so we need to clear about defining learning goals.

We need all of our students to engage in thinking, elaborating, actively exploring and revisiting their schema, practising using terminology, applying the concepts to unseen problems and practice tasks that pull their knowledge around, testing it and making it more extensive and adaptable. A good range of questioning techniques and routines helps to ensure all students are engaged in thinking in this way, allowing them to explore their own understanding and giving the teacher feedback in a dynamic way.

From Shallow to Deep: Narratives.

Building a schema for a complex episode in history requires several lines of attack. There’s the aspect of chronology, locating events on a timeline that has meaning; the need to explore artefacts and images that allow us to visualise places and events, to conceptualise the interactions between people and their status in the narrative; there’s the opportunity to connect past events to concrete places and known events and concepts in the present and to make links between events that allow key disciplinary themes to take shape – change and continuity, causation etc.

Willingham’s view that understanding is remembering in disguise is important- but the nature of what is ‘remembered’ has wide possibilities. For Henry VIII and his wives, there’s rich narrative – an opportunity for a story to be told, reading books and exploring a wealth of images and real places like the Tower of London, ensuring they all connect into something coherent. The power of the narrative is key – it’s the well-understood structure of stories that makes so many curriculum areas open up for us. However, there’s value in then highlighting the key ‘shallow’ knowledge that students ought to know in order to form the ‘deep’ knowledge that might constitute secure understanding of the events in this period. A knowledge organiser has value as a record of lynch-pin factual knowledge that helps to tell the wider, richer story. But we start with the story, the richness.

We still need to ensure that key factual knowledge is present – eg the meaning and relevance of Pope, Rome, Catholic, ‘from Spain’, Protestant, heir… . Knowledge can be organised to support schema building (as in the R of MARGE: relate) but then has to be stretched; pulled around to answer questions and enquiries through well designed, scaffolded tasks that include an array of straight-forward retrieval practice activities and more elaborative, interrogative tasks. Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded survived has a powerful mnemonic function but, unless it stimulates recall of a wider schema, its value is limited. Nonetheless it may be the stepping stone to deeper knowledge; the scaffold that a student needs to build their schema around.

Building from concrete; a ladder of practice difficulty

A common challenge for maths teachers is to build from concrete to abstract. This is often absolutely evident in the topic of fractions. There are so many foundations needed for the computational routines to have meaning. The need for students to form a concrete ‘home’ for fractions as physical/spatial parts of a whole and, importantly, taking a position along a number line – the challenge can’t be overstated. Then there’s the central issue of having fractions expressed in terms of the same-sized pieces to allow us to combine them. Then there’s the terminology of ‘denominator’ or ‘lowest common multiple’ which all needs to relate to understood, concrete examples and an underlying model or sense of patterns and sequences of numbers.

We can design a ladder of difficulty in maths with scaffolded problem-sets supported by spatial diagrammatic cues if relevant, then repetition at different levels of complexity for fluency-building and, ultimately, using un-cued multi-step problems such as those used on Craig Barton’s superb SSDD website – same surface, different deep structure. The example here requires students to retrieve the relevant procedural knowledge for each operation (add, divide, multiply, subtract) alongside knowledge about area and perimeter for a rectangle – all without being directed; students’ knowledge of how to manipulate fractions has to be nicely flexible as they select the best strategy for each of the problems.

Building curriculum links in science; linking experiential to abstract

Schema building is inherent in all elements of science. With states of matter there are connections to be made from the concrete world we observe, encompassing a wide range of materials and their properties, to the particle/kinetic theory model we use to explain how materials behave. Knowing that iron can be liquid, or that heat leaves your hand when the ice cube you are holding is melting or that the condensation on the outside of your beaker of icy water comes from water vapour in the air… requires students to gain exposure to concrete examples via a well planned curriculum. In chemistry, we need time to wrestle with the abstract atomic world of particles and their element symbols, linking to the concrete world we observe in experiments. This requires thinking, recall, practice, elaborative interrogation.. and the teacher needs a sense of this is all going so that conceptual barriers and misconceptions are explored.

At KS2, there’s an opportunity to build a schema over time as students learn about rocks – the great time-record of Earth’s history – about fossils and the amazing dinosaur extinction and, ultimately, about evolution and the incredible story of our common ancestry with all other living things. This isn’t a quick hit.. it’s slow and steady. Perceiving the timeframe of the fossil record is an almighty challenge so we need visuals and touchstone facts to help students build deep knowledge. Dinosaurs (as seen in the natural history museums) became extinct 65 million years ago… humans evolved in the order 100,000s of years ago. We know this because of where we find bones and fossils buried in the layers of earth and rock. We are not descended from chimpanzees – but we have common ancestors with chimpanzees. Selecting these touchstone facts is critical part of curriculum design.

How does writing develop?

The final example is the complex and amazing process of building writing. The full range of the schema-building model’s features come to bear. The meaning of words – linking new words to the knowledge and experiences children already have; the role of practice to support fluency – a crucial aspect of writing, allowing students to draw on their bank of interconnected known phrases and words to optimise the intrinsic load in working memory; the use of scaffolds and exemplars to guide writing that weaves knowledge with ideas about style and purpose, learning from story-telling to tell stories. There’s a lot going on, layer upon layer, building over time.

Exposure to words, phrases and stories isn’t enough; reading extensively for pleasure isn’t enough. For students to write with confidence and flair, they need a carefully constructed curriculum that engages them in lots of intentional knowledge acquisition and lots of varied practice for fluency building, spiralling around from year to year. Included in this process is engaging the web of students’ emotional, personal responses to texts, their personal life experiences, their ideas, their imagination. That’s not outside the model.. it’s all wrapped in together. The issue is that when students struggle, the deficits can nearly always be explained as knowledge and fluency deficits and that has to be addressed head on.

The Hungary short-essay example weaves so many elements together and I’m always keen to stress the need for varied scaffold types depending on what students are struggling with: factual topic knowledge and understanding – that all-important topic schema; word/phrase knowledge; structure guidance; time management. This all builds on much more fundamental writing skills that are forged at KS1 and moulded at KS2 – but still need to be worked on and practised. Ideas about maturation and creativity essentially build on ideas about schema-building.

We could go on. I find it fascinating and useful to go through curriculum-specific issues in this way, to explore how ideas about memory and instruction connect, identifying possible solutions to the problems that students and teachers experience every day. Reductive? Simplistic? I don’t think so!

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