Education Research: Cognitive Psychology Can’t Be The Only Game in Town

As head of research, this past year I have spent a huge amount of time reading papers and increasingly coming up against terms like “interrater Reliability” or “Box-and-whisker plot.” (The latter sounds like some sort of racy cat based detective novel.) The majority of papers I seem to be reading are from the field of cognitive psychology and whilst they provide fascinating insights into the workings of the brain and have deeply enhanced my understanding of how we actually interpret sensory data, I feel we are losing sight of something.


 “8 out of 10 education researchers prefer whiskers.”

Despite doing a course in statistical methods in my first year of my PhD in education, I’m often left cold. Whilst I can work with the abstracts and conclusions, I find I often struggle with the very methodological terms used to justify the claims made. Someone recently told me that to work in education research you should ideally have a degree in cognitive psychology and statistical methods. My response was that unless he has read Homer, Plato, Socrates, Shakespeare or Locke then he shouldn’t be allowed near a classroom. (Unreasonable I know, but it sounded good at the time.)

A key element of education research is about representation. You are attempting to represent a process (and an unfathomably complex one at that) and then test particular approaches or observe specific phenomena. Using solely an empirical method to represent and describe this deeply complex relational phenomenon can seem akin to “measuring a transistor to make sense of a joke in a YouTube video.” (Eagleman)

In the education research arena, I find myself more and more listening to people who are not so much talking about this complex process but rather lecturing us on how they have simply measured a transistor. I’m always reminded of Chris Morris tricking Noel Edmonds on Brass Eye into telling us that the “made-up” drug “cake” affects a part of the brain known as “Shatner’s Bassoon.”

It is great that there have been so many advances in our understanding of how the brain works and the relationship to student learning, but there sometimes seems to be an absence of discourse about to what end this information is useful or how it exactly it empowers children. There are some fantastic practitioners in cognitive psychology such as Nick Rose and Mark Healy who take findings from the field and then apply it insightful and erudite ways informed by other disciplines, but it feels that in the case of many others we are becoming literally “brainwashed.”

Why is this field so dominant now? Is it commensurate with a school culture that seems to audit itself solely now in terms of quantitative ‘measurable’ data? There is much more to be said on this and I just wanted to briefly put down some thoughts here but to my mind there are four areas in education research: philosophy, anthropology, sociology and of course psychology and at the moment I worry that we seem to have hedged all our bets on the latter.


  1. evidenceintopractice

    The recent interest in cognitive psychology is broadly a positive development, I think. There’s a great deal of literature looking at things like memory and motivation which teachers could learn from and may be able to apply in the classroom. However, there’s also a great deal of cognitive neuroscience which won’t be immediately applicable or even perhaps especially interesting to teachers (I don’t really believe the latter). For example, something like the recent insights into ‘what happens in teachers’ brains’ (e.g. – doesn’t really have any immediately useful implications for schools or classrooms.

    I don’t think a research lead needs a degree in psychology and statistics. Personally, I think we need a better way for research leads to network – so that those who have an academic interest and backgrounds in such fields can help point towards promising books or papers. I don’t have a specialist background in philosophy, anthropology or sociology – so I’ll be relying on others to help triage these enormous fields and point me towards things that might be useful to teachers and school-based researchers.


    • chronotopeblog

      I agree with that Nick. One thing I would like from the Cog Psy community is a sort of taxonomy or anthology of papers relating to specific fields, perhaps coded with key areas relating to subject specific teaching and or pedagogical approaches.


  2. jonpatrick

    As always, this is a considered and balanced reflection. I’ve been having similar concerns. However, I have two observations:

    First, the explosion of interest in cognitive psychology (and educational research, incidentally) is contained to what is actually a fairly small sample of practitioners on twitter and at conferences. However, this is a bubble. I’ve found that when I speak to most classroom teachers they are unaware of notions like working memory. And why would they be? These disciplines aren’t included in most initial teacher training. You stumble upon them by chance.

    Second, and related, I wonder if it is your gained expertise in these disciplines that make you think that there is an over-reliance on them. Before teaching I came from a philosophy background and found that there was too much philosophical debate in education, and thought that this led to paralysis. This reminds me of the four stages of competence: unconscious incompetence – conscious incompetence – conscious competence – unconscious competence. If you have moved to the final stages of competency in applying cognitive psychology approaches to the classroom then it may seem strange that others are placing so much stock in them. But this is only because they are discovering how much their practice can be improved by understanding them.

    I hope that makes sense and will look forward to your future reflections on the matter.


    • chronotopeblog

      Good points Jon, thanks.

      I think you’re right – many teachers are unaware of the specifics of cognitive psychology but how many teachers are aware of a sort of bastardised version of it? How many TED talks featuring infantilised versions of cognitive psychology are quoted by teachers and used in assemblies up and down the land?


  3. jfin107

    The problem with too much attention to cognitive psychological research is that it becomes divorced from values, ethos and more fundamental questions like ‘what is education for?’ As Gert Biesta points out this kind of research only tells us what was the case. It can’t tell us about purposes. And that is why in telling us what works, might work, is unlikely to work.


  4. educationresearcher

    there is pure research (understanding stuff for its own sake) and then there is applied research (hoping to figure out how to do something better)
    pure research has tended to yield bigger steps forward long term (no-one knew what to do with lazers for 40 years)

    reading a lot of cognitive psychology might not make you a better teacher but it will surely make you better at spotting flawed research generally


  5. chrismwparsons

    Cognitive Psychology is particularly prominent in educational circles these days because it is the ‘hardest’ science (other than neuropsychology) which educationalists can lay their hands on – certainly in terms of trying to unravel individual behaviour.

    If we are interested in research-based practice, we often can’t get much closer than inter-group differences with a grey area of supposition to join the dots. Cognitive psychology gets us that bit closer to something that feels like certainty.


    • dodiscimus

      This comment is perceptive. The ‘problem’ with a lot of education research is that often the most useful work is very context-specific, qualitative, and tentative. By contrast, a lot of cognitive psychology research is boradly-applicable, quantitative, and (failry) definitve. Keep reminding yourself that applicability to the classroom – YOUR classroom – matters a lot. Ebbinghaus was learning lists of made-up words. That’s of no real relevance to teachers. Later researchers have demonstrated that spaced-learning is effective across a variety of real learning situations but that’s taken ages, a lot of different pieces of research, and the 10% of time to test finding is still quite tentative. Given that this is one of the strongest examples of ‘what works’ that we have, it’s well worth holding up other cognitive psychology against this standard.


  6. ijstock

    My growing reading of cognitive psychology has provided some useful insights for classroom practice – but rigorous application of them is another matter entirely. I think the reason that this is becoming so dominant is that it offers the (illusory) prospect of knowability to those running schools for the things they are held accountable for.


  7. Of Possible Worlds

    Thoughtful post and thought-provoking comments. Having just recently immersed myself in educational research, I can see your point, although I agree with Jon Patrick’s assertions. I’d also like to add a hypothesis: perhaps cog-psych has rather become the “go-to” theory in support of evidence-informed teaching and learning as a response to constructivist methods and models that have infiltrated education worldwide. Of the four areas of ed research you identify, cog-psych is arguably the most empirical. And that may be what’s needed – at the moment – in order to build education systems based on sound science rather than fuzzy fads. Once we’ve got that down, we can continually improve those systems by weaving through those four areas you mention, crafting our practice and incorporating new information. But while we’re still having the knowledge-skills/direct instruction-constructivist/teacher led-student centered argument(s), cog-psych is able to provide facts grounded in science that are perhaps less susceptible to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. And yes, given our contemporary penchant for data, cog-psych fits the bill. So … I 100% agree with your last statement; I just don’t think we’re at that point in our development, considering we’re still having basic disagreements about the fundamentals of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, I fear that a harmonious application of those four fields might not be possible until we’re in Star Trek’s Federation-type utopia.


  8. teachingbattleground

    A box and whiskers plot is covered in GCSE maths. I’ve taught it to year 9. It’s a rectangle with two lines attached corresponding to some basic statistical measures. You don’t have to be Hans Rosling to get the hang of it.


  9. Pingback: Educational research – worth a read: | Hilary Engward
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