The cognitive science basis of a shared theory of learning.
1 Existing theoriesThere 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 learningLearning 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.
Cortex, visual cortex, frontal lobe etc
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)
Working memory, phonological loop, visual/spatial sketchpad
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."How the Brain Learns. David Sousa
Foreword by Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE in Neuroscience for Teachers: Applying research evidence from brain science. Crown House Publishing.
3 The language of the theoryExamples
4 Limitations of neuroscienceIt 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-mythsThese 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 descriptionClearly 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 surgeryAny 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.