The Tiger Teachers and cognitive science

Cognitive science is a key plank in the Tiger Teachers’ model of knowledge. If I’ve understood it properly the model looks something like this:

Cognitive science has discovered that working memory has limited capacity and duration, so pupils can’t process large amounts of novel information. If this information is secured in long-term memory via spaced, interleaved practice, students can recall it instantly whenever they need it, freeing up working memory for thinking.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as it stands. It’s what’s missing that’s the problem.

Subject knowledge

One of the Tiger Teachers’ beefs about the current education system is its emphasis on transferable skills. They point out that skills are not universally transferable, many are subject-specific, and in order to develop expertise in higher-level skills novices need a substantial amount of subject knowledge. Tiger Teachers’ pupils are expected to pay attention to experts (their teachers) and memorise a lot of facts before they can comprehend, apply, analyse, synthesise or evaluate. The model is broadly supported by cognitive science and the Tiger Teachers apply it rigorously to children. But not to themselves, it seems.

For most Tiger Teachers cognitive science will be an unfamiliar subject area. That makes them (like most of us) cognitive science novices. Obviously they don’t need to become experts in cognitive science to apply it to their educational practice, but they do need the key facts and concepts and a basic overview of the field. The overview is important because they need to know how the facts fit together and the limitations of how they can be applied.   But with a few honourable exceptions (Daisy Christodoulou, David Didau and Greg Ashman spring to mind – apologies if I’ve missed anyone out), many Tiger Teachers don’t appear to have even thought about acquiring expertise, key facts and concepts or an overview. As a consequence facts are misunderstood or overlooked, principles from other knowledge domains are applied inappropriately, and erroneous assumptions made about how science works. Here are some examples:

It’s a fact…

“Teachers’ brains work exactly the same way as pupils’” (p.177). No they don’t. Cognitive science (ironically) thinks that children’s brains begin by forming trillions of connections (synapses). Then through to early adulthood, synapses that aren’t used get pruned, which makes information processing more efficient. (There’s a good summary here.)  Pupils’ brains are as different to teachers’ brains as children’s bodies are different to adults’ bodies. Similarities don’t mean they’re identical.

Then there’s working memory. “As the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham explains, we learn by transferring knowledge from the short-term memory to the long term memory” (p177). Well, kind of – if you assume that what Willingham explicitly describes as “just about the simplest model of the mind possible”  is an exhaustive model of memory. If you think that, you might conclude, wrongly, “the more knowledge we have in long-term memory, the more space we have in our working memory to process new information” (p.177). Or that “information cannot accumulate into long-term memory while working memory is being used” (p.36).

Long-term memory takes centre stage in the Tiger Teachers’ model of cognition. The only downside attributed to it is our tendency to forget things if we don’t revisit them (p.22). Other well-established characteristics of long-term memory – its unreliability, errors and biases – are simply overlooked, despite Daisy Christodoulou’s frequent citation of Daniel Kahneman whose work focused on those flaws.

With regard to transferable skills we’re told “cognitive scientist Herb Simon and his colleagues have cast doubt on the idea that there are any general or transferable cognitive skills” (p.17), when what they actually cast doubt on is the ideas that all skills are transferable or that none are.

The Michaela cognitive model is distinctly reductionist; “all there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition” (p.19). Then there’s “skills are simply just a composite of sequential knowledge – all skills can be broken down to irreducible pieces of knowledge” (p.161).

The statement about intelligence is a direct quote from John Anderson’s paper ‘A Simple Theory of Complex Cognition’ but Anderson isn’t credited, so you might not know he was talking about simple encodings of objects and transformations, and that by ‘intelligence’ he means how ants behave rather than IQ. I’ve looked at Daisy Christodoulou’s interpretation of Anderson’s model here.

The idea that intelligence and skills consist ‘simply just’ of units of knowledge ignores Anderson’s procedural rules and marginalises the role of the schema – the way people configure their knowledge. Joe Kirby mentions “procedural and substantive schemata” (p. 17), but seems to see them only in terms of how units of knowledge are configured for teaching purposes; “subject content knowledge is best organised into the most memorable schemata … chronological, cumulative schemata help pupils remember subject knowledge in the long term” (p.21). The concept of schemata as the way individuals, groups or entire academic disciplines configure their knowledge, that the same knowledge can be configured in different ways resulting in different meanings, or that configurations sometimes turn out to be profoundly wrong, doesn’t appear to feature in the Tiger Teachers’ model.

Skills: to transfer or not to transfer?

Tiger Teachers see higher-level skills as subject-specific. That hasn’t stopped them applying higher-level skills from one domain inappropriately to another. In her critique of Bloom’s taxonomy, Daisy Christodoulou describes it as a ‘metaphor’ for the relationship between knowledge and skills. She refers to two other metaphors; ED Hirsch’s scrambled egg and Joe Kirby’s double helix (Seven Myths p.21).  Daisy, Joe and ED teach English, and metaphors are an important feature in English literature. Scientists do use metaphors, but they use analogies more often, because in the natural world patterns often repeat themselves at different levels of abstraction. Daisy, Joe and ED are right to complain about Bloom’s taxonomy being used to justify divorcing skills from knowledge. And the taxonomy itself might be wrong or misleading.   But it is a taxonomy and it is based on an important scientific concept – levels of abstraction – so should be critiqued as such, not as if it were a device used by a novelist.

Not all evidence is equal

A major challenge for novices is what criteria they can use to decide whether or not factual information is valid. They can’t use their overview of a subject area if they don’t have one. They can’t weigh up one set of facts against another if they don’t know enough facts. So Tiger Teachers who are cognitive science novices have to fall back on the criteria ED Hirsch uses to evaluate psychology – the reputation of researchers and consensus. Those might be key criteria in evaluating English literature, but they’re secondary issues for scientific research, and for good reason.

Novices then have to figure out how to evaluate the reputation of researchers and consensus. The Tiger Teachers struggle with reputation. Daniel Willingham and Paul Kirschner are cited more frequently than Herb Simon, but with all due respect to Willingham and Kirschner, they’re not quite in the same league. Other key figures don’t get a mention.  When asked what was missing from the Tiger Teachers’ presentations at ResearchEd, I suggested, for starters, Baddeley and Hitch’s model of working memory. It’s been a dominant model for 40 years and has the rare distinction of being supported by later biological research. But it’s mentioned only in an endnote in Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School and in Daisy’s Seven Myths about Education. I recommended inviting Alan Baddeley to speak at ResearchEd – he’s a leading authority on memory after all.   One of the teachers said he’d never even heard of him. So why was that teacher doing a presentation on memory at a national education conference?

The Tiger Teachers also struggle with consensus. Joe Kirby emphasises the length of time an idea has been around and the number of studies that support it (pp.22-3), overlooking the fact that some ideas can dominate a field for decades, be supported by hundreds of studies and then turn out to be profoundly wrong; theories about how brains work are a case in point.   Scientific theory doesn’t rely on the quantity of supporting evidence; it relies on an evaluation of all relevant evidence – supporting and contradictory – and takes into account the quality of that evidence as well.  That’s why you need a substantial body of knowledge before you can evaluate it.

The big picture

For me, Battle Hymn painted a clearer picture of the Michaela Community School than I’d been able to put together from blog posts and visitors’ descriptions. It persuaded me that Michaela’s approach to behaviour management is about being explicit and consistent, rather than simply being ‘strict’. I think having a week’s induction for new students and staff (‘bootcamp’) is a great idea. A systematic, rigorous approach to knowledge is vital and learning by rote can be jolly useful. But for me, those positives were all undermined by the Tiger Teachers’ approach to their own knowledge.  Omitting key issues in discussions of Rousseau’s ideas, professional qualifications or the special circumstances of schools in coastal and rural areas, is one thing. Pontificating about cognitive science and then ignoring what it says is quite another.

I can understand why Tiger Teachers want to share concepts like the limited capacity of working memory and skills not being divorced from knowledge.  Those concepts make sense of problems and have transformed their teaching.  But for many Tiger Teachers, their knowledge of cognitive science appears to be based on a handful of poorly understood factoids acquired second or third hand from other teachers who don’t have a good grasp of the field either. Most teachers aren’t going to know much about cognitive science; but that’s why most teachers don’t do presentations about it at national conferences or go into print to share their flimsy knowledge about it.  Failing to acquire a substantial body of knowledge about cognitive science makes its comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation impossible.  The Tiger Teachers’ disregard for principles they claim are crucial is inconsistent, disingenuous, likely to lead to significant problems, and sets a really bad example for pupils. The Tiger Teachers need to re-write some of the lyrics of their Battle Hymn.