Has The Psychology of Learning saved us?

All of us teaching today can recall a fair bit of Psychology in our teacher training. Most of this (‘obviously’) was to do with Developmental Psychology – general phases, patterns and trends in the ways that children in general seem to mature in their ways of processing and conceptualising information. By and large, I think we can agree that this focus has been useless to teachers. We get the (obvious) idea that we need to pitch things at an appropriate level for pupils, but beyond this, we are left with the uncertainty of being able to take what has been shown to be the ‘general trend’, and apply it with confidence to the ‘specific individual’.

As a consequence, the robust clarifications of Cognitive Psychology research have been a massive boost for the science of learning, giving us some genuinely concrete and generalizable insights which we can apply to every child.

Key areas of insight have involved the apparent limitations of what we can actively hold and process in working memory (Cognitive Load Theory), plus the most efficient ways of building-up patterns of long-term recall for otherwise unlikely to be remembered  information in the brain (“Desirable Difficulties”).

Additionally, the insights gained from the same field into the fundamental role which assimilated long-term knowledge plays in shaping our active thought processes give us a hugely valuable insight into what cannot be ignored in the development of skilled thought and behaviour. Just in case this is new to you  we essentially think using our existing knowledge, and intellectual skills are formed out of the interplay of this knowledge with new information (plus some metacognitive programs – once they’ve actually become habitual).

Together, these discoveries point to invariable features of the information processing structure of the brain and provide a badly needed scientific anchor for learning theory.

From a different direction, the Evolutionary Educational Psychology work of David Geary gives us a hugely persuasive framework from which to categorize forms of learning into two kinds, and explain why some things seem effortless to learn (and attractive), and other things effortful (and ‘boring’). (This chapter is behind a paywall – but well worth purchasing http://psycnet.apa.org/books/13273/020)

Essentially, our brains have evolved over millions of years to fit the basic social, naturalistic learning environment of primitive peoples, whereby various skills – such as speaking – and various ways of ‘Folk’ thinking about the world (all both essential and sufficient to survival on this planet as it has normally been) – can be acquired simply through a rudimentary upbringing in a traditional human culture. These forms of ‘Primary’ knowledge shouldn’t actually need to be taught [if we are bringing-up children in a traditional human culture………which perhaps sometimes we’re not].

The cultural artefacts of the past 2500 years however – the literary, philosophical & scientific advances in our understanding – have been incrementally gained, bit by bit, over much time, through a lot of hard work by the best positioned thinkers of their period, and they are difficult for the developing human mind to simply discover by itself, or even naturally apprehend. Consequently these ‘Secondary’ forms of human knowledge require effortful thought by the learner, and the focused transmission by a skilled teacher. Or in other words ‘Schooling’.

Taken together, these two areas – still badly missing from the taught or privately acquired pedagogical understanding of most teachers – might appear to provide a rigorous framework upon which a clear-sighted new teaching orthodoxy could be formed. For example:

A New Orthodoxy:

  1. Skills of social interaction and communication, as well as fundamental forms of everyday scientific understanding can be effortlessly acquired irrespective of the availability of formal schooling.
  2. ‘Higher-Order’ forms of skilled thinking fundamentally emerge from – and feed off – the accumulation of knowledge structures integrated by the individual thinker.
  3. Consequently, the focus of formal schooling needs to be on acquiring the cognitively challenging recent skill developments in human communication (reading and writing) and the various areas of knowledge, understanding and practice which have built-up around our culture.
  4. The best ways to fill-up our brains with these things is through efficient forms of explicit instruction, carefully shaped to focus the minute-to-minute cognitive resources of the learner, and which ensures long-term retention through a mixture of cunning exposure and retrieval techniques.


Except……. I don’t think it can be the end.

Despite the clarity of this hugely powerful fleshing-out of the Information Processing Metaphor, the  cognitive architecture of the human mind is still only one facet of everything which guides the behaviour of these wondrous beings we appear to be. And the cleverer we get, it would seem that we are no less equipped to escape from this. Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” shows many examples to this effect, and – even having read it – listened to it twice – understood it – appreciated and loved it – I still think that in the vast majority of situations, I personally think the same way about most everyday situations involving subtle statistical judgements that I would normally do.

Indeed, it could well be that the apparent rationality of our cognitive minds is simply a device evolved to enable greater social cohesion, and I will dedicate another post to looking at further implications for education of these thoughts.

The point is – whether we like it or not – despite the capacities of our machine-like cognitive architecture – we are biological animals, in a social and environmental context, with the capacity to reflect, choose and direct.


So what are the implications of all this?


  • If we want to avoid wasting a lot of time trying to teach the unnecessary, and also a lot of breath arguing about it, we should embrace the evolutionary distinction between Biologically Primary and Secondary Knowledge. This would also avoid us wasting time thinking that children will be able to discover for themselves the millennia of hard-won cultural knowledge and insight.
  • If we want to develop flexible, critical thinking skills, with rich creative insights, then we’d best not dismiss and deride the foundational filler of contextual and concept-forming knowledge.
  • If we want to ensure that children can pass traditional examinations, gaining the highest grades that they can, then we’d better ensure that we direct our efforts into carefully constructed interactive explicit instruction.
  • At the same time however, if we want to do the above things as cleanly as possible, then we must ensure that we cleanse the learning environment of the unwanted biological, social, environmental and existential contaminants which could interrupt the flow of information transfer. We would however need to be mindful that we would be diverting away natural human dynamics and either channelling them somewhere else, or suppressing them for another time.
  • Or… just possibly, we could embrace the best insights of the above points, accept the inescapable reality of the table I placed above them, and throw ourselves into the – always imperfect – regularly conflicted and frustrating – process of trying to engage the full range of human experience and dynamics in educating – as well as schooling – the humans in front of us. It just might be that we can achieve educational outcomes hitherto unachieved.

2 thoughts on “Has The Psychology of Learning saved us?

  1. Pingback: Who is responsible for the BIG PICTURE..? | Stepping Back a Little

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