Cognitive Science in the Classroom

I enjoy reading Daniel Willingham’s work because he makes complex but important findings in cognitive science accessible to the average, busy teacher like me. I was first introduced to his writing a few years ago when I came across his book Why Don’t Students Like School?

Recently, I discovered that he has written a number of articles on highly practical topics for teachers ranging from spacing study to increase retention to whether critical thinking can be taught. Here are some of his findings, grounded in cognitive science, that might be especially useful for K-12 teachers:

  • Technology:

    • While technology might inherently be engaging, this appeal wears off quickly. Instead, teachers must strive to make the content itself engaging without using technology as a crutch. Technology can be an important support to learning but shouldn’t be at the heart of the lesson.
    • The best ideas for how to use new technologies will often come from other teachers because there hasn’t been enough time to conduct robust academic research on how to best implement rapidly developing education technologies.
    • Encourage students to avoid multitasking while doing an important task. Students aren’t actually multitasking, they’re just rapidly switching between tasks which reduces their focus and effectiveness.
  • Importance of Knowledge:

    • In the debates of content versus skill and whether schools should reduce the amount of material we expect students to learn because everything can be found on the Internet, it’s important to remember that knowledge is still important.
    • Knowledge helps you: take in, think about and remember new information; improve your thinking, and solve unfamiliar problems.
    • Willingham reminds us that “… the goal of education is seen not so much as the accumulation of knowledge, but as the honing of cognitive skills such as thinking critically. Knowledge comes into play mainly because if we want our students to learn how to think critically, they must have something to think about.” Therefore, while students don’t need to memorize long lists of names & dates, they need to know enough to engage in the vital task of critical thinking.
  • Practice makes perfect

    • Anticipating that we forget much of what we learned, we must practice a skill or recalling new information beyond a level of mastery.
    • What type of material is worthy of repeated practice?
      • Core skills & knowledge that will be used again and again
      • Knowledge students need to know in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts.
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