That Artful Science

One of the more important developments of the past generation in this and other fields is the insistence that we get better at what we do; further, to do so it would be a good idea to know more about the basic science behind our work; and that practitioners should be supplied with the fruits of that scientific research.  Sometimes this is called Knowledge Mobilization (or, in some fields, Research Translation, a not-dissimilar idea).  The problem: there has been only a tiny uptake of scientific practices in a lot of fields, chief among them education.

Daniel Willingham, a Harvard-trained cognitive scientist, represents what can be possible when thoughtful experts produce clear and usable guidelines for daily practice  His book, Why Don’t Students Like School? is a superb piece of work; it shows how research can meaningfully inform very practical decisions in schools, without being either overly diluted nor overly technical.

He is centred on a fairly conventional view of what schools are and what they can achieve.   He is not prone to fad; he insists on evidence for his claims.  As such, he has argued against a set of likely untrue ideas about cognition and learning – learning styles for one, bless him – and argues that many of the problems related to learning (particularly reading) are related to a clack of subject knowledge.  He provides a compelling and thorough account of the challenges of working memory, something that many teachers have been told is important but without much explanation.  His clarity and evidence is a welcome antidote to the esoteric products of many publishing houses.

Perhaps most admirable is his scientific worldview – without such a view, the other fruits would not be possible.  Just listen to how he describes the role of science in improving schools:

Education is similar to other fields of study in that scientific findings are useful but not decisive.  An architect will use principles of physics in designing an office building, but she will also be guided by aesthetic principles that are outside of science’s realm.  Similarly, knowledge of cognitive science can be helpful in planning what you teach and how, but it is not the whole story.


Not the whole story – but I see two ways that cognitive science can be useful to teachers.  First, knowledge of cognitive science can help teachers balance conflicting concerns.  Classrooms, after all, are not just cognitive places.  They are emotional places, social places, motivational places, and so on.


Second, I see principles of cognitive science as useful boundaries to educational practice.  Principles of physics do not prescribe for a civil engineer exactly how to build a bridge, but they let him predict how it is likely to perform if he builds it. Similarly, cognitive scientific principles do not prescribe how to teach, but they can predict how much your students are likely to learn.  If you follow these principles, you maximize the chances your students will flourish.


Education is the passing of accumulated wisdom of generations to children, and we passionately believe in its importance because we know it holds the promise of a better life for each child, and for us all collectively.  It would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children… Education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education.

– Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, pp. 164-5