Why do so many teachers find cognitive psychology so attractive?

Over the past couple of years teachers have been discovering cognitive psychology, often viewing it as that long-awaited silver bullet that holds the secrets to unending learning. It’s an interesting phenomenon, more so because those who appear most enthusiastic are also those who reject or are highly critical of earlier psychological research by the likes of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, while academic psychologists continue to re-evaluate and extend such work in the light of more recent research.

So is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful? Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) recently tweeted his concern.

Personally I do understand why cognitive psychology (as opposed to behavioural, psychodynamic, social or more biologically influenced psychology) is so attractive to teachers.

First of all, cognitive psychology offers something relevant. Not only does it remain the dominant paradigm in psychology, it also offers useful solutions to the problem of learning. The fact the majority of interested teachers see cognitive psychology as being about memory doesn’t pose that much of a problem despite the approach encompassing a wide range of processes.

Cognitive psychology is also science based. There is a strong connection between cognitive psychology and biology and cognitive scientists in general are in agreement with biologists. Furthermore, cognitive psychologists are gradually moving towards neuroscience as way of gathering more evidence to support theories that have been supported in experimental conditions.

Cognitive psychology is empirical. Studies are conducted in highly controlled conditions in an attempt to establish causation. Theories are supported through replication, just like any other scientific theory, and further evidence is added to support previous conclusions. Models are constructed from the data and amended when further data is made available and those that can’t be supported are (usually) rejected. Some models, therefore, (such as Working Memory) are dynamic, shifting in response to new data, similar to models explaining evolution or the formation of the universe. To suggest that cognitive psychology isn’t empirical is too misunderstand the nature of science inquiry.

So, is cognitive psychology the silver bullet?

No, and this is what teachers need to be aware of.

Studies using experimental methods normally take place in highly controlled environments (and some might not even involve humans). Artificial situations can cause problems when they involve human beings because sometimes humans don’t behave in the way we want them to.

For example, participants often display what is known as demand characteristics, that is, they alter their behaviour because of the situation. They might try to ‘please’ the researcher by second-guessing the nature of the study and acting accordingly. Alternatively they might just want to ‘mess it up’ – particularly if the study involves young people.

Related to this is the problem of generalizability. Can we assume that the behaviour in the experimental situation will be mirrored in, say, a classroom situation?

Samples are often biased. There is some concern that many studies use undergraduate psychology students as participants, which in turn could increase the possibility of demand characteristics. Furthermore, researchers eager to support their hypothesis might consciously or unconsciously manipulate the situation in order to get the ‘right’ results, or even reject any outliers in the data (a technique known as p hacking). This isn’t unique to psychology, but it remains something to be aware of.

Finally, keeping up with advances is cognitive psychology could, in itself, become a full-time occupation – just look at the number of papers published each year into memory, not to mention the number of academic journals dedicated to it.

My concern isn’t that teachers are enthusiastic (any promotion of psychology, in all its guises, can only be a good thing) but that some teachers are unquestioningly enthusiastic and others are vehemently apposed to any evidence-based approach (in the same way that many are taking sides in the pointless ‘progressive vs. whatever the other side is today’ debate).

So “is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful?”

Warranted? I think it is because cognitive psychology can inform our teaching. In essence, it’s useful.

Helpful? No, not if it polarizes opinion and ignores all other fruitful avenues.


4 thoughts on “Why do so many teachers find cognitive psychology so attractive?

  1. gregashman

    I think it is indeed extremely worrying if people start to think of cognitive psychology as a silver bullet. I’m not even sure what this would look like. What would it imply?

    For instance, CASE (cognitive acceleration through science education) is a program based upon Piagetian and Vygotskyan theory. The idea is to accelerated students through Piaget’s developmental levels by using Vygotskyan social constructivist approaches. It has seen enormous success when tested by its originators, even in ‘far transfer’ – students who were taught a Year 9 CASE science programme went on to perform significantly better at English GCSE in Year 11. However, others have tried to implement CASE and, anecdotally, found it to be far from a silver bullet. There is even an RCT from Finland that I think showed no lasting effect (but I can’t check that because I don’t read Finnish).

    I am just starting out on a PhD in an area connected to cognitive science – cognitive load theory. However, I do not see this as something set apart from the rest of educational research. For instance, I have recently been reading a great deal on the process-product research of the 1950s-1980s. What I find interesting is that there is a certain convergence between what this research shows and the findings of cognitive psychology. Whereas we may rightly query a single experiment or finding on the grounds that you have outlined above, it seems unlikely that very different methodologies would arrive at similar results through chance.

    This is, of course, one of the problems with CASE. There is nothing else quite like it that demonstrates similar results. I look forward to the EEF review being published at the end of next year.

    1. chrisanicholson

      “Isn’t this the complaint people make when something is right but they wish it wasn’t?”

      Yes, but not as frequently as straw man complaints about silver bullets. I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve seen that one used by those resisting the evidence for phonics.


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