During my 34 years of teaching, I learned that my students were training me: the more insight I had into them and their responses, the better I could teach. Experience is one of the biggest factors in teacher quality. In addition, as Hattie (2008) showed, teaching is most powerful when teachers themselves are learning. I eagerly consumed ideas about how to make learning better, including now widely debunked approaches like ‘visual, auditory and kinaesthetic’ (VAK) differentiation and ‘brain gym’. Today, Ofsted suggests that teachers should draw upon the ‘learning sciences’, applying understanding generated by cognitive science to classroom practice.
There are two problems here: the first being the gap between studies in neuroscience and everyday classrooms; the second the reality that teachers are the only practitioners equipped to test the evidence in schools. Often, when the findings of neuroscience reach the classroom, (like brain gym and VAK) they have become ‘neuro-myths’ and do little to enhance learning. Didau wrote, in 2017: ‘… we should probably exercise professional scepticism when anyone claims that a method of teaching is ‘brain-based’ or supported by ‘neuroscience’. (https://learningspy.co.uk/myths/promise-danger-neuroscience/). The second problem is highlighted, as Cooney Hovarth tells us, by the work of Anders Ericsson: that ‘by the very definition of expertise, the only experts in teaching are teachers themselves’ (2020, p 18) and for that reason teachers are the only people who can decide on effective evidence-based practice. Pedagogical skills do develop with practice: Dylan Wiliam (2018) confirms that improvements made by teachers are more due to experience than to any training provided on the job. Usually, teachers are ‘so immersed in trying to deliver the highest quality evidence-informed instruction that they don’t have time to read the evidence itself.’ (Cooney Hovarth 2020, p 65). So, realistically, to what extent can teachers use cognitive science?
Effective practical tips for teachers are hard to come by because what works is so powerfully affected by context. There are some simple activities that are less likely to be lost in translation between the laboratory and the chalk face. These include classroom techniques to enhance memory. Among them are the 5 strategies of spaced or distributed learning; interleaving; retrieval practice; elaboration and dual coding recommended by Ofsted. (For more explanation, see https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/963625/Research_for_EIF_framework_updated_references_22_Feb_2021.pdf). We are also encouraged to recognise cognitive load theory: the capacity of the short-term memory to process information. We are told that input of new information needs to happen in short chunks so that it can be properly processed before any attempt to transfer to long-term memory. (Sweller ,1998). Apart from a handful of such tactics, it may be more helpful to look not at specific suggestions for classroom practice, but at how neuroscience might offer new ways for secondary school teachers to understand pupils’ attitudes and behaviour.
Popular neuroscience writers show that there are specific traits of adolescents’ brains society needs to recognise. Among these are the fact that teenagers are unable to learn well during the early morning; that they struggle to focus on a task at hand in the presence of emotional stimuli; that they have a propensity towards risk-taking and that they are susceptible towards mental illness. (Blakemore, 2018).
As headteacher in a large secondary girls’ comprehensive, where mental health issues were coming to the fore a decade before the Covid pandemic, I worked with colleagues and parents to find ways of addressing teenagers’ emotional wellbeing. In 2016 we were excited by Lisa Damour’s ‘Untangled’, which pointed out that the completely normal development of the teenage brain includes phases and behaviours adults can find shocking. We used the book to help run workshops for parents, who found its insights reassuring. Frances Jensen and Sarah Jayne Blakemore have shed sharper light on these phenomena. Their books, too, are written partly from the perspective of parents, and do not pretend to offer teaching strategies. They point to hitherto seldom recognised aspects of the development of teenagers’ brains which are powerfully relevant to our understanding of their learning.
Blakemore’s studies suggest that training in certain cognitive skills (particularly ‘numerosity’ and non-verbal reasoning) is more effective in late than early adolescence (2018, p 94 -95). Likewise, social decision-making, including the degree of trust in and cooperation with others, is still developing in teenagers. This has implications both for teaching values and for approaches to collaborative work. She also explains why a reward-based approach is more effective than punishment in adolescent learning.
Jensen shows us that what is called long-term potentiation (LTP) - the process in which synapses develop and strengthen and by which knowledge is embedded in memory – is more robust in teens than adults. This means that memories are easier to make and last longer when acquired in teen years compared with adult years. ‘This is the time to identify strengths and invest in emerging talents. It’s also the time when you can get the best results from remediation, special help, for learning and emotional issues.’ (2015, p79)
Cooney Hovarth and Bott, (op. cit.) whilst being adamant that most teachers are too busy to explore neuroscience, advise us to focus on making the learning process more explicit for our students. They need to know the vocabulary and patterns of learning. So, we should ask questions such as where they have seen the material before; why the learning activities are ordered in a certain way; how content compares with what has been learned before and what learning skills might be relevant.
To conclude, teachers should be wary of embracing fads posing as neuroscience. Kendra McMahon and Alison Lee point out in their blog, learning sciences is bigger, more diverse and knowledge is more contested than is commonly recognised. However, there are some important emerging discoveries about how the ability to learn develops in youngsters. We can wait with interest and even excitement as more research into teenagers’ capacity for cognition, their self-control and social awareness is published. School and college leaders must do more to support teachers in becoming critical consumers of evidence from cognitive science. As well as time and space, they need a supportive culture and context: the conditions highlighted in ‘An Ecosystem for Research Engaged Schools’ (Godfrey and Brown, eds. 2019). We also need the interdisciplinary conversation called for in Matt Slocombe and Derek Bell’s blog. In Cooney Hovarth and Bott’s words, as we work to improve teaching and learning, the ultimate goal should be ‘evolution driven by those who possess the knowledge, skill, and expertise to properly drive it: teachers themselves.’ (2020, p144).
Anne Hudson was a teacher for thirty-four years, and, for the last thirteen years of those, was head teacher consecutively of two large London comprehensives. Her PhD was based on action research into change in a school community. Currently, she is a school governor and works independently to support schools.