What can history teachers learn from cognitive psychology? Part 1

It shames me to say it, but I used to glaze over whenever people started to talk about theories of how pupils learn in a non-subject-specific way. I heard so many bogus theories in my first few years in teaching that I decided pretty early on that the only theory I needed in my head was a theory of how history worked as a discipline. This did serve as a form of inoculation against some of the ridiculous ideas that were being banded about, for as soon as someone started to talk about ‘learning’ in a generic sense, I just switched off. From about 2011, however, which was about five years into my teaching career, I started to read a few things that persuaded me that maybe I needed to take some wider theories of learning a bit more seriously. I started reading Joe Kirby’s and Kris Boulton’s blogs, which were very persuasive. I went away and read some Willingham. When Make It Stick came out, I went and read that (and wrote about it here, here and here).

And what I read made sense. What I read succeeded in making me interested in the psychology of learning (which in itself was something of a small miracle): I need to read a lot more, but increasingly I find that cognitive psychology seems to offer the kind of theoretical basis for teaching that biochemistry provides in medicine or physics provides in engineering. Perhaps the biggest shift this required in my head was the recognition that learning ultimately has to be individual rather than social: although we learn in social environments and knowledge is a social phenomenon, this knowledge has to come to live in the mind of the individual: otherwise it has not been learned. Suddenly the work of philosophers and historians whom I had previously read (such as John Searle and Quentin Skinner, both of whom give due consideration to humans as social animals) began to make a lot more sense.

This is why I am quite a big fan of the recent document to be released by ‘Deans for Impactcalled The Science of Learning. This summarises the findings of cognitive psychology regarding the learning process in a tidy manner with helpful examples of the practical implications of the research. It is essential reading for anyone training to be a teacher in the present, and I am beginning to share this with lots of people.

But, my subject snobbery still lingers on! One never ‘learns’: one always learns something. Different school subjects have different structures and work in different ways, and for a document like The Science of Learning to be helpful for teachers, it needs to be considered through the lens of the subject. That is what this series of blog posts is going to do. In some ways it’s a continuation of my previous posts on Making History Stick, but I hope it takes things a little bit further than that.

The Science of Learning is broken down into several sections.

  1. How do students understand new ideas?
  2. How do students learn and retain new information?
  3. How do students solve problems?
  4. How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside the classroom?
  5. What motivates students to learn?
  6. What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

There is an awful lot to take on here and it might take me a bit of time to get through each of these sections. But in each of the blog posts in this series, I’ll be taking the psychological principles raised in a section and saying ‘so what does this mean for history teachers’.

This series will obviously be most useful for history teachers. I hope, however, that regular readers who teach other subjects will find these posts useful and interesting. If I get round to it, I might pull these posts together into an article for Teaching History at some point in the future.

Comments are, as always, very welcome.

3 Comments on What can history teachers learn from cognitive psychology? Part 1

  1. Carl Newman // 27 October 2015 at 22:08 // Reply

    This is a great document and I’m glad to hear you are going to consider how it might be of use in the history classroom. After reading lots of cognitive psychology it drove home to me how important context is and getting the ‘gist’ before delving into the detail or the ‘list’ (think I heard the gist list thing from Jamie Byrom) . In response I had my year 12 group read Gombrich before delving into studying 19th century Europe. Additionally I spend s lot more time cementing the chronology through regular low stakes tests – this, I am led to believe, creates the schemes to be added to later

  2. I am really looking forward to this series. Thank you for taking this up. 🙂

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