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Science on Learning: Cognitive Science and Classical Education

What can we as educators apply from modern science?

I live in two very different worlds. On one hand, I am a father of four who supports and helps in the homeschooling of our children with a Christian and classical approach. On the other, I have spent my entire professional career in public education as a K-12 teacher and university professor. Perhaps because of this immersion into two very distinct settings, I have been able to bring them to bear on each other. I want to share in this short article one of the wonderful overlaps that few may have seriously looked at.

I think that because of the K-12 world’s poor track record in the eyes of the homeschool community, we discount some of the good things that can be drawn from it. In fact, I think we are guilty of caricaturing education and educational research at times. What I want to share with you are a few principles of learning derived from contemporary cognitive science, expanding on each principle, its implications for learning, and articulating its alignment with a classical education.

In Out of the Ashes Anthony Esolen describes those ideas that endure: “If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment” (p. 22). The classical model of the trivium and a liberal education fits into Esolen’s first category of distilled wisdom of the ages. However, to not engage with current research because it is new is just as erroneous as public-school educators who disparage all that is old just because it is old. Let’s engage with current research and explore its fruit and how it, too, supports the classical model of the trivium and a liberal education.

I have created a list of six cognitive principles of learning, synthesized from systematic reflection on the broad base of research in the field of cognitive science. Additionally, each of these principles, if it is intentionally acted on, can significantly enhance learning in any context.

  1. Learning takes time and reflection.
  2. Learning is enhanced when cognitive limits are respected.
  3. Learning is most effective when a breadth of foundations are in place.
  4. Learning knowledge precedes learning skills.
  5. Learning endures when it is practiced.
  6. Learning is fundamentally different early and late in training.

In this article, we will focus only on the first principle: Learning takes time and reflection.

Learning involves a change that endures in an individual’s mind. That means that what we remember (and thereby learn) is literally the residue of thought (Willingham, 2009). The more we think about something, the more we reflect on that topic, the more we systematically connect the topic to other relevant topics, the more enduring our learning is. Learning is not a one-time event. It is a process.

The fact that learning takes time means that it is important to not rush through our learning simply to cover all that is expected. Instead, we must provide ample time and repeated, deeper explorations into important material to help learning stick. Additionally, the way that a liberal education is designed to see connections across domains cultivates learning that is more likely to endure.

This first principle aligns very well with the model of the trivium. During the grammar stage students are expected to amass a large body of basic yet foundational, factual information which they can draw upon later. As they move deeper in their learning (not necessarily by grade), they engage critically with that information (logic stage) and contemplate its meaning and its implications for other topics. As learning in a particular domain grows rich, they are able to creatively and articulately express these ideas (rhetoric stage) as well as apply them. Finally, it is important to note that reflection is not something that is done through the casual completion of a worksheet. It is the sincere working over of an idea in one’s mind—very akin to the notion of schole, or contemplation, that is a staple of a classical education.

What are some practical tips to help improve your child’s learning in light of this principle?

  • Be sure that any learning activity is designed to help students think about the topic.

In the classroom with dozens of students, this is something that is very often missed. Some teachers simply put the kids in groups and hope that collaboration will serve as a mystical elixir of learning, but truth be told, they have no idea what most students are thinking about at any given time. Others might simply give a lecture moving quickly through all that is supposed to be covered without including frequent pauses for questions, independent reflection and discussion, and so forth. Or, all too often, technology is tossed in to make a lesson more “engaging” only to distract their thought to using the technology and not thinking about the material. The same holds true in the homeschool environment, too, however. If we adopt a curriculum and it includes plenty of worksheets but the assignments are simply for completion, there is a good chance that our children will learn the basics, go on autopilot, and race through to get it done. In whatever setting is appropriate for you, consider to what extent you can incorporate opportunities to ensure that students are thinking about what they are supposed to be during formal lessons.

  • Provide multiple opportunities for sustained reflection.

In many cases, silence in the classroom is one of the more awkward experiences for teachers and students alike. This is not a good thing—and our stimulus-driven society only perpetuates such discomfort with silence through technology, social media, and general patterns of hyperactivity. We need to fight against this trend because meaningful opportunities to reflect on learning—without saying or writing anything—are powerful tools to enhance learning. Make time throughout your day, and within lessons, for everyone to contemplate the ideas being learned.

Esolen, A. (2017). Out of the ashes: Rebuilding American culture. Washington, DC: Regency Publishing.
Willingham, D.T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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