A reflection on a panel debate about cognitive science in education at the 2022 Festival of Education, from Henry Saunston.

According to Andrew Pollard, ‘teaching is an art, a craft and a science.’ 1 The main ‘science’ at play in current educational development is that of cognitive science; teachers teach, and students learn, but bridging the gap between theory and practice to maximise the opportunity for the practitioners to influence learners most effectively is the challenge. Herbert Simon puts it beautifully here, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” 2

Many of the newly developed statements within the Initial Teacher Training Core Content Framework (ITT CCF) can be viewed through the lens of the broadly termed ‘science of learning.’ An understanding of cognitive principles and the psychology behind effective teaching is increasingly becoming a necessity, not just for the teacher educators but the in-school mentors.

In July 2022, I was very lucky (and a touch surprised) to be invited to participate in a panel debate as part of the cognitive science strand, hosted by InnerDrive, authors of ‘The Science of Learning – 99 Studies That Every Teacher Needs to Know.’ InnerDrive’s work is centred around making cognitive and neuroscience research and evidence accessible and applicable. The theme of the panel debate was the application of cognitive science in the classroom – my contribution was through the perspective of Initial Teacher Education.

Cognitive science isn’t just ‘something’

In essence, to effectively embed cognitive science into teaching and learning, schools need to ensure that they have the right culture or are at least endeavouring to foster it. Before the principles can become practice, it must first be acknowledged that cognitive science isn’t simply a list of terms and concepts that can become a checklist for classroom success and immediate impact, they are foundations that allow teachers to see a deeper meaning or purpose behind their actions.

To embed the principles, schools must allow the mechanisms of professional development to develop an evidence-informed ‘literacy’ among its practitioners. The language of cognitive science must be understood, and its definitions agreed, before endeavouring to manifest ideas in respective domains. The most damaging part of any intervention or development is a syllogistic approach – ‘something must be done; cognitive science is something, therefore we must do it’. Cognitive Science isn’t just ‘something’, nor is it entirely the property of education – it is a greater insight into the workings of the human mind, the space in which learning takes place.

Effective teaching doesn’t happen in silos as there are general and shared concepts that can build said effectiveness, but all staff must be allowed to develop those general themes in the specific contexts in which they teach. Removing the likelihood of poor, shallow, or even worse, tokenistic implementation for the sake of being ‘seen to do’ is fine on paper, looks good on a ‘road map’, sounds good at meetings, but means nothing, unless it is implemented with respect and fidelity.

Although an incredibly important factor, cognitive science isn’t the only thing that will impact on your students’ learning – factors such as motivation, curriculum and behaviour play a big role too. Without a foundational awareness and understanding of the principles of cognitive science, they make little sense. However, in failing to understand them, classroom experiences cannot be maximised, and may even be flawed.

There is no ‘silver bullet’

As the debate developed, we realised (from our respective perspectives) that the key is to ensure that the principles of cognitive science are respected as evidence upon which to build effective practice. They must be taught, understood, and appreciated, but they are not the sole factor in a positive student experience. Strategies such as retrieval, spacing, interleaving, metacognition etc., need to align with clear goals within specific contexts. Treating cognitive science as a silver bullet paves the way for lethal mutations, and ultimately dilutes effects.

“Critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise, theory becomes simply ‘blah, blah, blah,’ and practice, pure activism.” – Freire 3


References and further reading

  1. Pollard, A. (ed) (2010) Professionalism and Pedagogy: A contemporary opportunity. A Commentary by TLRP and GTCE. London: TLRP. – p.5
  2. https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-cantapply/cantapply-01.html
  3. Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of freedom. Rowman & Littlefield – p.10



  • Henry Saunston

    Henry is the director of Teach East SCITT, developing new teachers for Peterborough Schools. His specialism is Secondary English, and he has worked as a teacher for nearly 15 years. He is a fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and of CollectivED, and has contributed many articles to publications such as Impact and TES.
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