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The explicit use and modelling of cognitive science in staff development

Written by: Liz Barratt
4 min read

As a classroom teacher and school leader, I have experienced the positive impact of a school-wide application of a cognitive science-driven pedagogy. I have witnessed real change in student and teacher thinking, and have celebrated the positive impact on student outcomes.

This perspective focuses on a key contributor for driving such change: the benefits of deliberate and explicit application, and modelling of cognitive science principles in the planning and delivery of professional development.

The story

Just over four years ago at The Nottingham Emmanuel School, we were heading towards new and ambitious examinations with high expectations and a strong commitment to our students, but using pedagogies that didn’t enable new knowledge to embed effectively over time. Our results were therefore not reflecting the hard work and commitment of the community.

As a school, we recognised the need for a shift in pedagogy and knew that deliberate change management and focused professional development would be necessary. While accepting that there are different definitions of learning, we decided to focus on the transfer of knowledge from working memory to long-term memory, based on Willingham’s mental model of the learner (Willingham, 2017).

The process

Our starting point is that if we believe in the power of cognitive science principles, such as those outlined below, as effective mechanisms for embedding learning, then these are exactly what we should apply to our professional development practice.

Principle Explanation
Spaced retrieval The use of tasks which require learners to recall prior learning from memory over increasing time intervals.
Testing effect The idea that more knowledge is retained following a series of tests requiring it to be recalled from memory, compared with just re-teaching.
Dual coding theory Disciplined connection between visuals and words (written or spoken) to enhance the learning experience.
Elaborative rehearsal The deliberate use of structured talk to develop understanding, based on the idea that discussion of concepts using concrete examples, explanations and analogy aids retention.
Tier three vocabulary The explicit teaching and use of domain-specific vocabulary.
Knowledge organisers The use of one-page documents which outline the most important knowledge and vocabulary for an area of study.

During our professional development sessions, we are explicit about our use spaced retrieval and low-stakes testing (Brown et al., 2014). We expect teachers to retrieve knowledge over increasing intervals to ensure they experience the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and how to overcome it (Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019). The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve describes how learned knowledge is gradually lost unless it is consciously reviewed time and again. It has been seminal for teachers to recognise their own ability to forget. In terms of our teaching materials, we aim to model dual coding and take into account cognitive load (Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019).

We have two intentions here: firstly, for staff to appreciate learning from a place of personal experience; secondly, for staff to retain the knowledge gains from professional development.

We want all staff to talk as experts when articulating the decisions made in their classrooms. We observe the impact of this both within the sessions but also during collaborative planning, coaching, or wider professional dialogue. We have in-built opportunities for structured elaborative rehearsal and interrogation and are disciplined in our use of ‘talk-time’, with staff actively listening and questioning. We believe that a common language or a shared ‘pedagogical literacy’ increases the pace and depth of staff learning and brings a collective efficacy to the practice beyond our sessions. The outcome is colleagues who can talk confidently and with rigour about their practice.

When measuring the impact of professional development sessions, we are learning-focused. Our questions are less about how CPD felt and more about what participants could remember, how it connects to prior knowledge and how they have applied their new knowledge. We observe ongoing learning carefully and respond to the needs of the group just as we would in our classrooms. We use questionnaires and feedback to heighten teacher self-awareness of learning to enhance the impact of sessions (Kirkpatrick & Kirkpatrick, 1993). The result is a teaching workforce that has greater confidence to be learning-led rather than task-focused.

Ultimately, what matters is that we are being deliberate and explicit in how we guide professional learning.

The impact

The Director of Learning for Humanities is able to clearly articulate the change that has taken place in our classrooms:

‘Spaced retrieval practice is now fully embedded within all teachers’ practice and is complemented by clear knowledge-rich curriculum maps. We have benefited from strategic spacing used both to embed learning as well as to identify the substantive knowledge gaps. This practice has removed the end of key stage “panic” for revision and instead supported students as learners who are continually recalling and using knowledge to strengthen their understanding of the subject. The use of deliberate elaboration techniques has developed student confidence to talk as subject “experts”, heightening engagement within the Humanities. Conceptual understanding of geography following increased opportunities for elaboration has aided long-term memory retention and enhanced the connection of big ideas. The impact of this is seen within the improved level of explanatory points within written responses across all key stages and improved subject outcomes within Key Stage 4 summative assessments.’

This leader’s confident and robust articulation of her team’s practice and the resulting outcomes highlights the impact of the professional learning and the shift in shared thinking that they experienced.


Brown P, Roediger H and McDaniel M. (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. USA. Library of Congress.

Kirkpatrick D and Kirkpatrick J (1993) Evaluating Training Programmes; The Four Levels. San Francisco. Berrett- Koehler.

Weinstein Y, Sumeracki M with Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. Oxford. Routledge.

Willingham D (2017) A Mental Model of the Learner: Teaching the Basic Science of Educational Psychology to Future Teachers. In Mind, Brain and, Education 11(4): 172. Available at: (accessed 4 December 2019).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas