Lessons Learned from Cognitive Psychology

What does it mean for a school to use the “latest brain research” to inform teaching? I recently read Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Despite the provocative title, the book spends little time exploring unmotivated or unhappy students. Instead, Daniel Willingham explains how an understanding of memory, expertise, and intelligence contradicts some popular opinions about education.

Are repetitive drills dull and unhelpful? Willingham explains that repetition builds automaticity, which in turn serves as a foundation for higher-order thinking skills.

Critical thinking processes are tied to background knowledge (although they become much less so when we become quite experienced …).The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.

In other words, students need to hold a certain amount of information in working memory in order to synthesize and analyze. This contradicts the popular claim that memorizing facts is unnecessary now that we have the Wikipedia.

Speaking of Wikipedia, the online encycopedia’s co-founder, Larry Sanger, sides with Willingham.

To claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge.

If public intellectuals can say, without being laughed at and roundly condemned, that the Internet makes learning (“memorizing”) facts unnecessary because facts can always be looked up, then I fear that we have come to a very low point in our intellectual culture.

Willingham drives a stake through learning styles, finding no evidence that an individual can be primarily a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner. NPR made a story of this in August of this year.

Why doesn’t Anne learn better when the presentation is auditory, given that she’s an auditory learner? Because auditory information is not what’s being tested! Auditory information would be the particular sound of the voice on the tape.What’s being tested is the meaning of the words. Anne’s edge in auditory memory doesn’t help her in situations where meaning is important.

Although NPR pitched this as a death knell for learning profiles, Willingham does support the teaching of material through a variety of methods, to allow students to use different mental processes to understand meaning and to “start fresh and refocus his or her mental energies.”

Willingham offers little for teachers to help students who don’t like school. Use metaphor, so that students use existing memories to acquire new knowledge. Organize content that is neither too hard nor too easy for each student. These answers will not likely satisfy the practicing teacher. Surely, we can do more for uninspired students.

Like metaphor, story has the potential to tap strong mental pathways when used as a teaching method. The story format of setting the scene, presenting a problem, and working toward a conclusion is familiar and engaging. This may be why the superb lecture remain a powerful teaching technique, and students adore some traditional teachers and abhor others.

Willingham also takes aim at the idea of teaching students to think like experts with a statement that is likely to rankle progressive educators.

Expert scientists did not think like experts-in-training when they started out. They thought like novices. In truth, no one thinks like a scientist or a historian without a great deal of training.

[Experts] have representations of problems and situations in their long-term memories, and those representations are abstract.

Willingham concludes that schools should focus on basic skills and automaticity, so that students build a strong foundation for the subsequent development of expertise.

Willingham’s advice is easy enough to accept. Focus on foundational knowledge and skills. Set high standards. Develop and employ pedagogical content knowledge. I would expect all good teachers to do these. However, the most effective teachers go far beyond these basic techniques. Foundational knowledge can include traditionally omitted content areas that have increased relevance for students today, such as economics, statistics, and psychology. Instruction for higher-order thinking skills can indeed begin in school if properly organized and developed. In fact, some higher-order thinking skills such as creativity are abundant in the early years of schooling but weaken due to deemphasis in school.

Willingham buys into a binary view of education that is all too common in the popular press. Educational styles are not limited to traditional and progressive. Experienced teachers understand that foundational knowledge is essential to build reasoning skills. Then sophisticated teachers also develop authentic contexts for learning that have evident meaning for students. They organize instruction for higher-order thinking without compromising foundational knowledge and skills. Willingham’s analysis should not imply a “back to basics” approach, at the risk of decontextualizing instruction and further alienating disengaged students.


  1. Hoover Chan says:

    Welcome to my world. There’s a lot to be learned from psychology and the neural sciences but for some people, the facts get in the way of a good story 🙂

  2. Bob Irving says:

    Spot on, as usual, Richard.