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Cognitive science in primary school: One school’s journey in applying research to practice

Written by: Patrick McDonald and William Gray
7 min read


Cognitive science has clear implications for classroom practice (EEF,2021a), and research shows that teachers’ professional development (PD) can positively impact pupil outcomes (Cordingley et al., 2015; Rauch and Coe, 2019; Sancar et al., 2021). Drawing on evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation’s professional development guidance (EEF, 2021b), leaders at Westerhope Primary School aimed to build knowledge, motivate teachers and embed practice around the use of cognitive science in the classroom. As a school, we had always been a workforce that actively sought to implement innovative and effective teaching and learning strategies to enhance learning. We were determined to build a curriculum that was progressive and coherent, bespoke to our school and built on research evidence, in order to best support our pupils.

Building knowledge

Our first step to embed the principles of cognitive science in our curriculum was to improve our own knowledge of how we learn. To motivate teachers and ensure buy-in, we decided to dedicate our teaching and learning staff meetings over two academic years to building knowledge of cognitive science principles. The goal was to familiarise ourselves with the fundamental concepts of cognitive science. We found the work of Tom Sherrington a useful starting point, and his blog on a model for learning (Sherrington, 2020) was instrumental for us, as a staff, in exploring the learning process in more depth. While we recognise, as does Sherrington, that this model has its limits, we still found it an extremely helpful way in which to begin to visualise how learning happens. It helped us to gain a better understanding of difficult concepts and importantly, we developed a shared language and understanding of the learning process.

Motivating staff

The EEF’s report into cognitive science in the classroom acknowledges that ‘Applying the principles of cognitive science is harder than knowing the principles and one does not necessarily follow from the other.’ (EEF, 2021a, p. 8) Therefore, our next PD sessions were spent studying the work of Rosenshine’s (2012) principles of instruction, with a clear focus on implementation in the classroom. In a profession where there are significant time constraints, we saw this as succinct and easy-to-digest research for teachers. In planning for these PD sessions, we recognised teachers’ temptation to turn these principles into a tick-list, but we made sure to address this misconception early. Rather, our intention was to explore his principles, recognise elements that were already prevalent in lessons and identify areas for development. Our teachers found that many of his suggested practices were commonplace, but now they had a greater understanding of why they should use them and how they promote effective learning. This shared vocabulary allowed for rich and meaningful discussions about what we already recognised as just good teaching. Now equipped with a shared model of the learning process, and having reviewed Rosenshine’s work, discussions between colleagues were already becoming more focused and supported by evidence.

Our next series of PD was based on cognitive load theory (Sweller et al., 2011), focusing on the knowledge that working memory is limited and can become overloaded through intrinsic and extraneous load (Sweller et al., 2011). Teachers now actively think about managing cognitive load in many areas, including: lesson planning and the teaching and learning strategies employed to deliver new learning; promoting metacognitive strategies; the use of scaffolds and prompts in lessons, and adjustments to classroom layout. Additionally, researching and delivering professional development on cognitive load supported us as leaders to design more impactful PD experiences for staff. We were careful not to overload colleagues with new techniques, but instead connect these to prior learning.

By aligning instructional practices with cognitive science principles, teachers have enhanced their lessons and optimised student learning outcomes. Teachers deliberately optimise intrinsic load through regular pre-teaching and segmenting new knowledge into more manageable chunks, whilst proactively seeking opportunities to reduce extraneous load. This has been as simple as modifying our planning document to focus teachers on their explanations and lesson content, allowing them to remove any unnecessary information. Teachers are mindful of reducing the content on teaching slides and have even altered the layout of classrooms to ensure that children’s full attention is to the front of the class. This has been received positively in feedback by internal and external observers.

Another area that we explored was retrieval practice, motivated by reading ‘How to use retrieval practice to improve learning’ (Agarwal et al., 2020). We created a bank of resources on a shared drive to ensure consistency and easy access to templates such as Flashback four, retrieval grids and give-me-two. Teachers recognise the value of recalling learned information for strengthening connections in the learner’s brain, as well as the importance of connecting new knowledge to prior learning. Initial fears of there not being enough time to squeeze another element into an already busy schedule have been allayed by the impact that it has had on learning outcomes.

Developing teacher techniques

The EEF’s (2021b) seventh mechanism, arranging practical social support, was an important consideration for us when designing our professional development series on cognitive science. To assist staff with peer and social support, we paired each teacher with another teacher from across school. Learning partners worked together in each staff meeting during this series of PD, working on collaborative tasks that offered opportunities for discussion and shared thinking. Additionally, staff were given time out of class to work together on shared goals, and were offered extra time together if needed – for example, to be in one another’s lessons. Learning partner time was guided by key prompts and questions, but staff were also given the flexibility to take this time in the direction that they wanted. A short part of each PD session was dedicated to reflecting on previous learning. This was an opportunity to discuss things that were working well and to problem-solve any issues. We found that Mentimeter was a quick and valuable way of gathering feedback. Feedback from staff was positive, and this is a technique that we will continue to use. Working with learning partners also supported staff with the EEF’s (2021b) final mechanism, embedding practice.

Monitoring and feedback were important in supporting colleagues to develop the chosen techniques. After the techniques had been explored and modelled in staff meetings, staff were given six weeks to experiment with these in their teaching. Our monitoring included pupil voice, pupil book study (inspired by Bedford, 2021) and learning walks. This multi-pronged approach allowed us to further develop our understanding of practice in school and supported curriculum leaders in identifying next steps. We were able to identify areas of good practice and use these as examples. One colleague used a staff meeting to model some of her teaching sequences. She had a very clear understanding of the new knowledge that she was teaching and had thought deeply about how this built upon previous learning. She had a clear process for modelling new knowledge through a combination of ‘I do, we do, you do’, think-alouds and worked examples (Mulholland, 2022). Analysing this learning sequence put the spotlight on key areas of improvement for staff.

Embedding practice

In order to embedded and sustain professional development, the EEF (2021b) emphasises the importance of providing reminders and prompts to support staff’s use of techniques. Learning partners were an important part of this journey. Staff were able to keep each other gently accountable and encourage one another in their use of the aspects of practice that we had explored. As well as this, leaders ensured that there were frequent opportunities to revisit our chosen foci, and opportunities for retrieval were built into regular staff meetings. Additionally, we used half-termly show-and-tell staff meetings, where teachers shared examples of the things that they had been working on with the whole staff. This encouraged colleagues to reflect on their work and supported others with practical examples of cognitive science in the classroom. Approaches such as show-and-tell staff meetings highlight areas of challenge and misconception – for example, oversimplifying the definition of retrieval practice to mean a quick quiz before each lesson.

In summary

In this reflection, we have explored some of the ways in which we introduced cognitive science principles to our staff through a series of PD. We discussed ways in which we attempted to support teachers to embed these techniques into their daily practice – for example, through learning partners, monitoring and sharing in staff meetings. We found that our biggest limitation was that of time and of the multiple demands on a teacher’s headspace. As teachers, often our grand plans for implementing something new into our classroom can be derailed by more urgent matters, or the busyness of the school calendar. We quickly learned not to over-plan our PD, particularly in the first or last weeks of a term, where many other things can get in the way. Additionally, we learned to appreciate staff’s cognitive load, as we would with the children in our classes, and not provide them with too many sessions or follow up tasks at once. Looking forward to next academic year, it is our intention to not introduce anything new, but instead to focus on refining and embedding the cognitive science principles discussed in this article. We think that, by framing our professional development opportunities around the EEF’s (2021b) guidance, we have an effective model that can be applied to PD across many aspects of school life and one that we will continue to use in future.

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    Yitzchak Yitzchak Freeman

    Really useful article. Are there any examples available of the resources and the planning documents that you used?

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