EEF Blog: Education and architecture - a cognitive science analogy

Enthusiasm for cognitive science is both growing and justified so the key question is how to integrate it effectively into teaching practice - so argues EEF head of policy Robbie Coleman via a borrowed analogy…


As every teacher knows, a good analogy is worth its weight in gold. The right analogy can light up a lesson, and the shame of stealing a good one is an instinct best shed early.

While pupils rarely ask for references, here I will share my source. Richard Churches and an academic team funded by the Education Development Trust and Wellcome have come up with a cracker.

Writing about a group of small-scale evaluations related to retrieval practice and spaced learning, they explain that neuroscience is to teaching what physics is to architecture.^

For me, the analogy works for two reasons:

First, it identifies the fundamental role that cognitive science plays in learning. Just as an architect should pay heed to the rules of physics when designing a flying buttress or a pointed arch, teachers can benefit from understanding how our minds and memories work. For example, it is extremely likely that students will forget material they are exposed to only once; therefore, designing a curriculum or scheme of work without recognising this is unlikely to achieve positive results.

Second, it acknowledges that the starting aims of teachers are not the same as those of cognitive scientists. An architect’s primary aim is to create a building that works well for its users. Physics provides a set of principles to help the architect move towards this aim, but creating a structurally sound building does not in and of itself constitute success. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

Thus, the role of the teacher is to select the applications of cognitive sciences that help children learn, bearing in mind that some may be less effective than others. We can easily think of several buildings that are solidly built, but do not function effectively. Likewise, it is highly like that there are teaching ideas that are entirely consistent with research about how the brain works that will not succeed in the classroom.

This is a point Churches and colleagues explore in a fascinating way. Evaluating 34 teacher-led trials focusing primarily on memory, they found a promising average impact, equivalent to four additional months’ progress, but a wide range of results that went from very positive to very negative effects.

Comparing different approaches to teaching spelling, for example, they found that an approach that relied solely on multiple choice testing was less effective than one which combined testing with strategy instruction using “Look, Cover, Write, Check.” As the authors rightly state, these results come from very small studies, and should be interpreted appropriately, but they are sufficient to encourage us to proceed with care.

In his recent book The Reading Mind (2017)^^, Daniel Willingham explores a similar idea about balance, encouraging educators to recognise the role of motivation alongside more hard-wired cognitive features, such as a student’s cognitive load.

When using an analogy, even one you are particularly pleased with, it is important to explicitly discuss its limitations. Indeed, according to the EEF’s recently published Improving Secondary Science^^^ guidance report, doing so can even amplify its effect. So, building on Willingham’s warning, where might the tale of the physicist and the architect fall down?

One danger is that the analogy could be interpreted as implying that cognitive science is more important than other aspects of a teachers’ professional knowledge. I don’t think many architects would fall for this trap. They would be clear that combining aesthetic appeal, social impact and cost with physical integrity is what their job is about. But it is worth stating explicitly that, for teachers, other bodies of knowledge, including about the social processes that underpin learning and the behaviour of groups, are also essential.

As I wrote in a previous blog about my own attempts to learn Spanish with spaced practice, enthusiasm for cognitive science is both growing and justified. But it is the way in which it is integrated with other forms of professional knowledge that will determine whether it fulfils its potential to improve learning.


^ Churches, R., Dommett, E., Devonshire, I., Hall, R., Higgins, S., and A. Korin (forthcoming, 2019). Translating laboratory evidence into classroom practice with teacher-led randomised controlled trials - a perspective and meta-analysis. Mind, Brain and Education: SIG 22 Conference Special Issue - submitted.

^^ Willingham, D. (2017). The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

^^^ Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Improving Secondary Science: Guidance Report.London: Education Endowment Foundation. 

Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash