A bit of brain science

There has been a great deal made of the implications of advances in brain science for schools.  Too much probably, because experienced teachers will recognise that they were doing certain things long before ‘brain science’ told them to.

Nevertheless, Ofsted now expects all teachers, tutors and mentors to know a few things about cognition so here is a summary of two key ideas:

1. Metacognition

This simply means making pupils think about how they learn – ‘the processes involved when learners plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning in order to improve’.   For primary pupils aged 8 and above this might mean simply self-assessing which bits of their work are best and which are less good.  For secondary pupils it means evaluating the relative merits of all those things we know can help learning such as writing out your notes, self-testing, spaced learning, using mind maps etc.

I failed my French O level after 8 years of intensive instruction.  Two years later I was offered a scholarship to Oxford conditional on passing French O level.  My offer was received in December and the next sitting of the O level was in January.  I worked flat out on my own for a month and passed (well on the written papers, badly on the oral).

What had changed? What had changed was that in the sixth form I thought about how to learn (how to place things in the long-term memory). I had discovered that if I was determined and really pushed myself to memorize 30 new words a day I could do it, building up to hundreds of words by self-testing day by day.  Awareness of what worked for me was metacognition.


2. Cognitive load theory

This simply means that our day to day working memory (our short-term memory) has limited capacity.  The challenge for teachers is to avoid overloading the working memory (which simply creates confusion) and to transfer useful knowledge to the long-term memory which has unlimited capacity.

Cognitive load theory is especially important for maths/science.

So don’t try to cover too much at once.  Start with simple ideas and move gradually to more complex.  Break harder tasks into bits.  Avoid distractions and diversions.  Explicit instruction is often better than discovery learning.

Other examples of things ‘teachers should do’ come from New South Wales:

  • tailor learning to students’ existing knowledge and skill
  • use worked examples, especially in maths
  • gradually increase the amount of independent problem-solving because for a pupil who has already grasped the basics further teacher guidance can in fact be unhelpful
  • cut out inessential information when teaching a concept
  • present complex information both orally and visually (speak it and show it)
  • encourage students to visualise concepts (ie recall them in their mind)


These recommendations are all based on research trials using test and control groups.



Professor Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education

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