Thursday, 3 May 2018

Learning Theory Pt 3: The cognitive science basis of the theory

The cognitive science basis of a shared theory of learning.

1  Existing theories

There are already many theories of learning:  behaviourist, constructivist, Piagetian, cognitive load etc (see this list)  When a discipline has many theories it often indicates that the subject is not understood.  As the evidence mounts, patterns emerge and the number of possible ways to interpret it falls.
This process happened in medicine during the 19th century.  At one time there were a whole range of theories which competed to explain the origins of disease: imbalance of humors, possession by spirits, bad air, sins of a past life etc.  Each had their own experts.  As the evidence mounted in support of physical-reality, evidence-based explanations such as blood circulation, germ theory etc, gradually the old theories lost effect.  A similar process is now taking place in education.

2  The basis of a unified theory of learning

Learning happens in the brain, so, any explanation of the learning process has to be able to describe the learning process as changes to the brain.
Before the arrival of brain scanning techniques such as fMRI etc, educationalists had to make educated guesses about what was happening in the brain.  Now we know so much more, it is now possible to link learning with other knowledge about the brain discovered by the cognitive sciences.
If we use the common language of the brain and cognitive psychology, we will now be sharing our model with neuroscience-trained educators such as Speech and Language Therapists and other brain-based therapies such as mental health practitioners.  By joining the club of other evidence-based theories we gain respect and credibility.

2.1  Sources of evidence

"The potential for the neuroscience of learning to form a foundation for teacher training is one area that offers further possibilities."
Foreword by Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE in  Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying research evidence from brain science. Crown House Publishing. 
How the Brain Learns. David Sousa

3  The language of the theory


  • Neuron
  • Neurotransmitter
  • Synapse 
  • Pathway
  • Cortex, visual cortex, frontal lobe etc
  • Plasticity
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
  • Working memory, phonological loop, visual/spatial sketchpad
  • Cognitive load
  • Long-term memory
  • Long-term potentiation
  • Executive function

  • 4  Limitations of neuroscience

    It is not possible to take an insight from neuroscience and, from it, make recommendations for the classroom without extensive trials and evaluations.  This is the same as in medicine and other evidence-based professions: When a new drug is being developed, although a great deal of chemistry, biochemistry etc is known, it is still impossible to predict the effects of a new drug without extensive testing and trials.  However, this does not stop the use of biochemistry to explain the effects of the drug, once the evidence is available.
    The use of cognitive neuroscience to explain effective teaching does not mean that it can be used directly to give teachers advice on how to teach.
    Teachers should apply 'what works' using the evidence from experiments.  However, we can use the language and ideas of the cognitive sciences to explain how they work and to guide in us in sensible directions to develop new ideas and techniques that may work.

    5  Neuro-myths

    These are ideas which are common in education and are often presented with a brain-based explanation, but which have no evidence to support them.  Examples include 'left-brain: right-brain', learning styles, brain gym etc.
    Some people are concerned that using cognitive science explanations will make neuro-myths even more likely.
    However, there are plenty of myths in education which don't rely on pseudo-neuroscience explanations - and we can use very basic science to show why all the myths are myths.

    6  Level of description

    Clearly there is a fear that, by using the language and ideas of cognitive sciences, that the teacher will be overwhelmed and spend time learning complex facts and concepts which will never be useful in their classroom practice.
    However, all theories can be represented at different levels of detail and technical language.

    6.1  Example from surgery

    Any heart surgeon knows the arteries and veins which supply the heart muscle with blood/oxygen in a very high level of detail, yet they all probably started their understanding with a simple diagram (source) like this one while at secondary school.
    It is at the appropriate level of detail for the student to start their learning.  Later on they may start to use a diagram (source) like this one:
    As their skills develop, the surgeon uses more and more complex versions of the explanatory model.

    6.2  Appropriate theories for teachers

    A similar approach is available for the science of learning.  The level of detail required is one which allows teachers to make sense of what they see in their classrooms and can be taught during initial teacher education.  One example is this very simple model of memory:

    We start a draft in the following pages.

    7  Theory into practice

    Please don't judge the 'theory' on this page till you have seen some concrete examples.


    1. This reads really clearly to me. It links to this article

    2. I found this very clear and sensible. I think that Para 6.2 could do with expanding, as it currently suggests there isn't very much practical theory, which clearly isn't the case!

    3. As for Part 4 a clear, informative and interesting read. The advances in MRI scans has opened up a new dynamic of learning. It is my sincere hope that the new knowledge and awareness serves to develop an education system that is for for purpose and contributes to a genuine joy of learning for our children!

    4. I agree with the above but I have a couple of questions or thoughts that need to be considered:

      1. What is the role of relationships and emotions in this discussion. The link between the hormone cortisol, emotion and learning is critical. The higher the stress in the learning environment the higher the levels of cortisol and this impedes the development of neural pathways.
      2. What is the cultural aspect of learning - not only in terms of how learning is valued but also in terms of how learning is facilitated and expressed. In some cultures learning by doing is more appropriate, while in other cultures learning by watching is appropriate. Neither are right or wrong.

      As we follow through on this discussion we need to think of learning as the centre of a series of concentric circles and the content of the concentric circles support how learning is facilitated, expressed and evidenced.

      Who is this theory for - what is it's purpose - and how will it be bought to life?

      1. Very helpful comments.
        1 Probably this needs its own page.
        2 Can you provide any evidence for this? It sounds a bit like 'learning styles'.
        Who is the theory for? - It's a shared theory for teachers. Please see sections 1 and 2.
        The theory already exists, we are just writing it down. It will gradually be adopted by people who find it useful.

      2. Whilst I would agree that learning at an organismic level takes place in the brain, I'm not sure that social and cultural aspects of the experience can be ignored. The focus here is on the process rather than the content. Yet what we 'learn' is a largely social and cultural artefact. Is it appropriate then to produce a theory that ignores this aspect of learning?

        Your question about evidence for the cultural aspect of education is quite a challenging one. We are talking about something that is seen as 'common sense' but that is insufficient grounds for inclusion in the theory and we need something more robust. Rogoff's work on the role of culture in child development is probably quite helpful. The same would, possibly, be true of Vygotsky and Leontev's work.

    5. Reads fine to me. No more comments.

    6. As a teacher of SEN students who have disrupted neural pathways, severely disrupted working and long term memory I would like to see a model that expands for diversity and the stress these students find in a learning environment.

    7. As a medical educationalist, this reads clearly. I wonder if it would be worth bringing in some discussion of semantic networks, but perhaps on another page, rather than when looking at the basics.

    8. The range and number of theories is mind-boggling (excuse the pun). It really would make sense to have a streamlined and coherent, shared understanding as a profession - simple and clear without being over-simplistic, and flexible enough to evolve as more is learnt over time.
      However, I agree with Rebecca about relationships and emotions. Teaching is (I think) an art, but an art that will work better if based on science. For the heart surgeon, the relationship s/he has with the patient is all but irrelevant to the outcome of the surgery. The surgeon will be applying his/her scientific knowledge and understanding directly to the problem at hand. In the classroom, the key to success will remain in a much greater part the quality of the relationships between teacher and pupils and between the pupils themselves. But out of two classrooms where relationships are similarly great, surely the one which makes better use of the available science and theory will be the more successful in terms of learning outcomes for the children?

    9. 1 Existing theories
      Your explanation of how theories change with evidence is clear and shows how knowledge changes over time due to a growing base of evidence. It's really important that we do this for 'how learning occurs' so we can move the emphasis away from the craft and art of teaching to viewing learning as a science. We need to get the folksiness and fluffiness out of teaching and replace it with solid bank of scientific knowledge about teaching/learning including high end teaching strategies that work.