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Why Don't We See More Cognitive Science in Education?

Closing out this round of guest bloggers is my research assistant, Amy Cummings. Before joining AEI, Amy taught high school social studies and completed a master's degree in cognitive science at Columbia's Teachers College. This week, she'll share some reflections on what she's learned about cognitive science, and what it might mean for education policy.

I spent a good portion of last year cooped up in the Teacher's College library furiously reading cognitive science journal articles and thinking about ways that I would use their findings to one day transform America's classrooms. Ha.

I've been working as a research assistant in education policy for about eight months now, and I can't think of one article that I read in graduate school to be helpful in thinking about education reform. In fact, as I write this now, I can only remember what a handful of the hundred-plus that I read (okay, at least skimmed) were even about. But with my fancy cognitive science degree I can tell you that's just a product of classic memory decay.

I refuse to believe that the entirety of what I learned last year is simply useless for education. So, in preparation for writing these blog posts, I spent some time last week recovering these decayed memories by sifting through old lecture notes, reading assignments, and papers I'd written. And as it all comes back to me, I keep asking myself, why don't we see more of these findings applied in education? After all, my degree program was called cognitive science in education.

Well, the fact that I haven't encountered or applied any of this information in my time working "in education" suggests that this research just isn't making it into the policy conversation. (And there are certainly questions about whether it should be part of the policy conversation—I'll leave that up for debate in the comments section.)

But a larger problem is that these findings aren't making it into conversations at the school or classroom level either—where people are making the "in education" part happen. I can speak from first-hand experience here as well. Back when I taught high school, my professional learning team sure didn't spend our collaboration time seeking out, reading, or discussing academic journal articles about cognitive science. We had more than enough lesson planning, standards alignment, and paper grading to take up that time—and then some.

The gap between what I learned in graduate school and what I've actually used "in education"—both as a research assistant and as a teacher—strikes me as troublingly wide. Especially when there are valuable lessons to be learned. Here are just a few selected findings from my recent retrieval effort:

  • Spacing out learning leads to better memory than massed practice.
  • Testing gives better memory than simply reading information. This is called the "test effect."
  • Having learners generate information leads to better memory than when they are told that information. Learning is best when this knowledge construction is done collaboratively.
  • People remember more when tested in the same physical or emotional context as they learned the information, so for learning to "stick" students should learn and be assessed across varying contexts.
  • Spreading information over multiple channels (e.g., visual, auditory, haptic) reduces cognitive load and helps with comprehension and memory.
  • Having students teach one another aids reading comprehension and memory of texts.

Now, many of these findings may seem obvious. And many great teachers already apply these in their classrooms. But the reality is that teaching and learning in too many of today's classrooms do not follow many of these findings. In fact, if I use the above list as a checklist, I'd probably grade my own teaching a "C" at best.

What, if anything, should be done about this? I'm certainly not calling for any big federal mandates for teaching and testing kids in different classrooms or creating new teacher-evaluation standards that include cognitive science indicators. But there's no reason that degree programs—at the graduate or undergraduate level—should be this siloed and far-removed from the very fields they're meant to influence.

The reality is that most teachers will not go on to get master's degrees in cognitive science. And a majority of people who study cognitive science, even at the Ph.D. level, will not become professors. They will leave the academy and have to apply what they have learned. And it's not just cognitive science that faces this challenge: The same could be said for a number of other education-related fields. Maybe there isn't a direct role for policy to play here, but it needn't take policy to encourage the academy to be more purposeful about preparing students for what comes after degree completion—whether that's teaching, research, advocacy, politics, or philanthropy. It's time for the academy to more purposely bridge the theory-practice divide and put cognitive science back in education.

Amy Cummings

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