10 Cornerstones: What Can We Learn from the Surprising Cognitive Research on Teaching?

“Teachers cannot put their hands into the heads of their students and insert new pieces of knowledge. The knowledge a person has can only be directly accessed by this person. As a consequence, learners have to create new knowledge structures for themselves.”

This striking statement begins the explanation of the first of 10 “cornerstone” findings from recent cognitive research on teaching. It’s found in a chapter of an important book from the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), published in 2010.

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice is a literal treasure trove of research and best practices featuring chapters written by (among others) Dylan Wiliam, Linda Darling-Hammond, Lauren Resnick, Robert Slavin, and Michael Schneider.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to blog about insights and findings from several chapters, beginning with the Ten Cornerstone Findings.

The 10 Cornerstone Findings

As I read this chapter, it was easy to make connections to the guiding texts used in both our Key Leaders Network (Cultures Built to Last, by Fullan and DuFour) and the Powerful Conversations Network (Leaders of Their Own Learning, by Berger, et al.) Lest you find the title off-putting, the authors—Michael Schneider and Elsbeth Stern—provide a very clear explanation of the cognitive perspective on learning:

“The cognitive perspective on learning is based on the assumption that knowledge acquisition lies at the very heart of learning. Once children acquire new information in learning environments, they are supposed to use that information in completely different situations later in life. This is only possible if they have understood it correctly and stored it in a well-organized manner in their long-term memory (p. 70).”

To illustrate this point, the authors describe a scenario where a teacher explains the concepts of the earth being a sphere that moves through space. The teacher uses “simple, precise, and convincing wording” with the students, who appear motivated to learn and attentive. Yet, one week later, when asked to draw a picture of the earth, the students miss the mark, with several drawing a round, hollow circle with people living in the bottom of the inside of the circle.

Why? The answer to this question is embedded in the ten cornerstone findings.

1. Learning is an activity carried out by the learner      

To enable students to successfully learn a concept or idea, teachers need to possess three important knowledge and skills: pedagogical knowledge, content knowledge about the subject being taught, and pedagogical content knowledge, which the authors define as “an awareness of how students construct knowledge in a content domain” (p. 72).

These are high expectations, but are necessary if teachers are to effectively prepare all their students for the next level, be it 4th grade, college, or career. The new report issued by Deans for Impact, The Science of Learning, (see my blog about the report here) suggests strategies that teacher educators can use to help teachers master these three important knowledge and skills.

2. Optimal learning takes prior knowledge into account

Successful learners, whether students or adults, generally call upon prior knowledge as they work to master a new concept or idea. In fact, the authors found that prior knowledge related to the subject at hand is “one of the most important determinants of subsequent learning” (p. 73).

Pointing to two different contexts of prior knowledge—formal and informal—the authors demonstrate that students’ unique experiences and perspectives require a teacher to constantly check for understanding to ensure that students are on the right track. And, teachers must be prepared to adjust instruction based on those in-the-moment checks for understanding.

3. Learning requires the integration of knowledge structures

“When children already hold incorrect conceptions in a domain and the correct concept is taught to them without linking it to their prior knowledge, the children can simultaneously hold incorrect and correct concepts without even noticing the contradiction” (p. 74).

Using the student misconceptions about the earth as a sphere as an example, some students—after listening to the teacher’s explanation—might conclude that there are two earths: one where they live on flat ground and another that is a sphere flying above them. To minimize the possibility of misconceptions in learning, the authors suggest the use of project-based learning, multidisciplinary learning, or having teachers link specific knowledge to different disciplines.

4. Optimally, learning balances the acquisition of concepts, skills, and metacognitive competence

The trifecta for successful learning relies on students learning about the concepts and procedures related to a specific learning goal AND helping them understand how those concepts and procedures relate to one another.

Helping students reflect on their knowledge acquisition—metacognition—enables students to “monitor, evaluate, and optimize their acquisition and use of knowledge” (p. 76). As a result, learning is dependent on both successful knowledge acquisition and the “stepping back and thinking about thinking” experience of metacognition.

5. Learning optimally builds up complex knowledge structures by organizing more basic pieces of knowledge in a hierarchical way

Cognitive scientists have found that all knowledge is structure in hierarchical ways. As an example, the authors offer this concept:

“This sencente mkeas snese to you, even thgoh the lretets are sclrabmed up, because people do not encode letters independently of each other. Instead, people use hierarchic memory representatives with letters at the basic level and words at a higher level” (pp. 76-77)

Organizing learning in a hierarchical fashion, such as Alabama’s College-and-Career Ready Standards, enables early learners to effectively progress from simple concepts to the more complex.

6. Optimally, learning can utilize structures in the external world for organizing knowledge structures in the mind

Learning doesn’t happen by chance. Effective teaching requires well-structured learning environments. The authors point to a simple but true fact:

“Teachers can only prepare structured learning environments to the degree they are aware of the structure of the content area they are teaching in, the structure of students’ prior knowledge, and the knowledge structures the learners are supposed to build up during the learning” (p. 78).

Five tools can help structure this learning. First, language is critically important to understanding. Teachers must carefully choose their words in ways that explain and connect interrelated concepts or that help students build upon their previous knowledge. As an example, authors point to casual conversations where people discuss the sun and the stars in the sky. In the classroom, it is important for teachers to help students understand that our sun is also a star.

The second tool involves structuring classroom discourse. Done well, facilitated discussion between students because it not only enables them to exchange ideas and hear different perspectives, but it also provides valuable formative data to teachers.

Structuring time is the third tool that facilitates learning. Remembering that all students don’t learn at the same pace, teachers must carefully plan and differentiate learning for some as needed. The fourth tool is the use of technology, not for the tool itself, but to “foster students’ construction of specific knowledge” (p. 79)

Finally, learning occurs when both teachers AND students are “aware of the learning goals.” This is the heart of our PCN study book, Leaders of Their Own Learning, which suggests that student-friendly learning targets enable students to manage their own learning and set a course for success.

7. Learning is constrained by capacity limitations of the human information-processing architecture

Put in easier terms, teachers need to help students move important concepts and knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory.

This can be done in at least three ways: (1) Chunking, or breaking down complicated concepts; (2) Connecting two or more concepts that are necessary for complete understanding; and (3) Keeping the learning materials “as simple as possible…the same applies to language: the simpler the language used to explain complex relations, the better and faster students will understand” the concepts (p. 81).

8. Learning results from a dynamic interplay of emotion, motivation, and cognition

This finding surprised me. In fact, when I read part of a sentence, I immediately made an annotation in the margin reading “Motivation: The motor that drives learning.” Wrong again, as one of my college friends used to say.

“Students’ learning goals and goals in life, their thoughts about their own competence, and their attributions of academic success or failure on various potential causes, and their interests and hobbies all contribute to the complex interplay of cognition and motivation. For this reason, good learning environments do not treat motivation as a motor that simply has to be started up in order for knowledge acquisition to take place. Instead they treat knowledge acquisition and motivation as multi-faceted and dynamically interacting systems that can strengthen or weaken each other in a multitude of ways” (p. 82).

9. Optimal learning builds up transferrable knowledge structures

Yet another surprise jumped out at me when I read this finding: “Even when students are motivated and build up sophisticated knowledge structures, this does not necessarily mean they acquire competence that is useful for their lives” (p. 82).

My first reaction was near despair until I kept reading and discovered intentionality is key to building the type of knowledge and skills that benefit students for their entire lives. Teachers must intentionally teach content knowledge “in ways that aid subsequent transfer to new situations, problem-types, and content domains (p. 83).”

In other words, teachers must help students develop the type of adaptive expertise that enabled the NASA scientists to solve the challenges faced by the Apollo 11 mission as depicted by this movie excerpt.

10. Learning requires time and effort

Teaching is rocket science, requiring hard work on the part of both the teacher and the students over a long period of time. The authors conclude the 10th finding this way: “Learning can and should be fun, but the type of fun that it is to climb a mountain—not the sitting at the top and enjoying the view.”

Reading and reflecting on these ten findings reminded me of the great challenges and great opportunities presented to teachers. One of the favorite quotes from our recent Instructional Partners Network retreat was “When one teaches, two learn.”

This research suggests that we add some words to that mantra: “When one uses effective teaching strategies, two learn.” Not quite as pithy, but using that advice could result, over time, in helping your students reach the peak of the mountain or build a rocket to the stars.