Is cognitive science destined to mutate?

Education is fickle. In a desperate attempt to improve outcomes, and with the added pressures of crippling accountability and soaring workload, schools are quick to latch on to the latest edu-fad and take aim with its supposed magic bullet.

More often than not, this results in yet more work for those of us at the chalkface as teachers dutifully implement a whole school strategy that, if you’re lucky, might have a passing resemblance to the underlying principles it was based on. But there’s no time to explore the evidence behind it so we all get on with the how and don’t worry about the why and inevitably, inexorably it fizzles out over the course of the year to lay dormant, waiting for its chance to reinvent itself and rise again.

Dylan Wiliam coined the term “lethal mutation” in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment (2011) to describe this bastardisation of sound educational principles (and as we’ll see later, he knows more than most about the result of this process) and Nick Rose has explored how this is already happening with certain areas of cognitive science in his wonderful blog.

So as my title asks – is cognitive science doomed to join the long list of mutants?

Overly pessimistic you say? Why the long face? Well let me take you on a miserable decade-long journey and I’ll introduce you to (just) my top 3 lethal mutations…

#3 Lethal literacy

Straight in at #3 is the myriad of whole school literacy strategies I’ve been subjected to in every school I’ve worked in. Every year, as we pick over the carcass that is the GCSE exam results looking for the scrap of meat that will nourish our intervention strategies for the next academic year, we eventually resort to the Old Faithful that *shock*, being able to read and write is quite important in exams. And so comes the familiar beating drum of WHOLE SCHOOL LITE-RA-CY, WHOLE SCHOOL LITE-RA-CY, WHOLE SCHOOL LITE-RA-CY…*repeat to fade*.

I’ve experienced them all. Literacy weeks where we shoe horn in wordsearches, spelling tests, anagrams and the like into our lessons whether the learning warrants it or not. Printing off entire budget’s-worth of vocabulary tables to stick in to student books. Word walls, word of the week, Drop Everything And Read, the list goes on and on.

I’m not saying that some of these couldn’t be effective but they don’t stand a chance if we are not given the opportunity to understand the underlying principles. Until this year, I’d never heard of the concept of vocabulary tiers or considered the importance of my grammar knowledge when trying to get students to construct excellent sentences.

Something that should have been fundamentally built in to the curriculum mutated to become a surface level tick-box exercise. Literacy should work for your subject, not the other way around. So, whole school surface-level strategies…no…don’t do that.

For more on the why before the how of incorporating strategies to improve literacy in ALL of your lessons see the following:

  1. Closing the Vocabulary Gap, Alex Quigley (2018) or Craig Barton’s interview with Alex on his fantastic podcast.
  2. The Writing Revolution, Judith C. Hochmann & Natalie Wexler (2017)
  3. Writing in Science symposium, Pritesh Raichura et al.

#2 All Bloom and gloom

Missing out on the top spot at #2 is the now infamous Bloom’s taxonomy. Here’s a reminder for you:

Of course higher order thinking skills such as creating and evaluating are important but this cone of shame was used to denigrate the importance of remembering facts despite the FACT that it’s the FACTS that are needed to think highly about anything in the first place.

I rewrote an entire KS4 scheme of work to ensure that each lesson objective incorporated a word from as high up the pyramid as I could feasibly manage. Why shouldn’t 11WO be able to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of genetic engineering through simple will power and my deft use of a thesaurus?!? Madness of course but without the “why” I didn’t know that. I was just following orders.

Rather than being treated as a ladder to climb with each step dependent on the last, it mutated into a way of measuring how challenging a lesson was. So, misusing educational principles to try and measure the quality of a lesson…absolutely don’t do that.

For more on the why before the how of developing higher order thinking skills by ensuring a sound knowledge base see the following:

  1. Introduction to cognitive science, #CogSciSci team
  2. Building Pyramids, Efrat Furst
  3. Why Students Don’t Like School, Daniel Willingham (2009)

#1 Badger bastardisation

Finally, my own personal #1 is formative assessment, or as it was originally introduced to me, Assessment for Learning (AfL). During my PGCE, we were pointed towards Black & Wiliam’s principles of AfL through their booklet Inside the Black Box (1998). Now Wiliam has spoken openly about the misuse and mutation of this so I’m not claiming to have discovered something new but some of you might not have seen the extent to which this morphed into something so very far removed from formative assessment. Behold the Science Badger Task in all its glory!

Coupled with it’s equally mutated cousin, Assessing Pupil Progress (APP), I delivered and marked hundreds of these things (but not before the students self AND peer assessed, otherwise, how will they learn how to improve?!?), never having any opportunity to assess and respond to learning in the moment. Instead, I just added another unreliable mark of their progress to the spreadsheet and RAG’d it.

This is #1 due to its sheer persistence. It has bred and mutated further over the years. Taking advantage of the assessment vacuum created when the KS3 SATs were dropped, it found an unoccupied niche to fill and become a form of SUMMATIVE assessment, equal to that of end of topic tests in some schools in terms of sharing understanding of student progress. Now, the only thing it has in common with Black & Wiliam’s vision is the word “assessment”. So, using a set of workload reducing principles to add more marking to a teacher’s life…please, I beg you, don’t do that*.

For more on the why before the how of AfL check out:

  1. Inside the Black Box, Paul Black & Dylan Wiliam (1998)
  2. Making Good Progress, Daisy Christodolou (2017) or Craig Barton’s interview with Daisy on his fantastic podcast
  3. AfL in Science symposium, Adam Boxer et al.

My plea

Perhaps you can now see why I’m a little sceptical that cognitive science can avoid this fate. So I end this blog with a desperate plea. Don’t let this happen to cognitive science. Encourage everyone to take some time to get to grips with the principles through the books, blogs and podcasts mentioned above (as well as many others) so that they (and you) can spot any mutations a mile off.

But there’s more to it than that. We can’t just sit idly by and watch as these mutations occur (and they have / will) and not take action.

If you’re told to put an emoji or icon next to every word on your PowerPoint slides because “dual coding”, or you’re observed and told you didn’t use #7 from Rosenshine or #43 from TLAC, or you’re told to put together a pack of past exam questions because “SLOP”, or you’re slaving over your non-negotiable Knowledge Organiser that will sit at the back of a student’s book or your scheme of work has been rewritten so they do different topics every lesson because “interleaving” then please, PLEASE, take a deep breath and politely and calmly say:

“I’m not sure that’s in line with my understanding. Can we have some time to sit down and discuss the why before we start on the how?”

*If you ever find one of those ring bound monstrosities, with their terrible irrelevant monochrome images and idiotic premises (I’m looking at you Dodgy Barbecue!), burn it. Without hesitation. In fact, burn the cupboard you found it in just in case you overlooked another copy.

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