Daniel Willingham on memory, phonics and metacognition

Professor Daniel Willingham’s ideas have helped drive English education’s embrace of cognitive science, but how well does he believe those ideas are being put into practice? Jon Severs finds out
2nd February 2023, 5:00am
Dan Willingham on memory, phonics and metacognition


Daniel Willingham on memory, phonics and metacognition


“I don’t have any chapters on the importance of pupils paying attention, because teachers already know that - they know if kids don’t pay attention they won’t learn.”

Professor Daniel Willingham is talking about his new book, Outsmart Your Brain, and what it does and does not include. Its 300 pages, he explains, are designed to help students and teachers figure out truly helpful approaches, rather than to merely highlight the things they already do - like simply saying “pay attention” - which, on their own, have little effect.

It’s utility that Willingham says he has always aimed for when writing for teachers - taking complex science and finding the bits that can actually optimise processes in the classroom. And it’s an approach that has proved incredibly popular: his book Why Don’t Students Like School? heralded an embrace of cognitive science in education in England and provided a scientific rationale for other key ideas that have shaped England’s education policy, such as the value of knowledge-based curricula.

But, in the 14 years since that book was published, how does the professor of psychology at the University of Virginia think the translation of science into education theories has progressed? Does he think we are getting the core elements of teaching and learning right?

We sat down with him to talk about these issues and the key messages in his new book.

Tes: Your work has played a huge part in the ‘evidence-informed’ movement in schools, but do you think we are translating science into practice as well as we could be?

Daniel Willingham: Simplification is a real tension. This is what makes this work really difficult. You either need to be really, really steeped in classroom practice, and have a lot of expertise and a broad view, and know the cognitive science relatively well. Or the opposite.

Because it’s really dangerous otherwise. You will read a study, think you understand it, come up with something to do in classrooms, and either you didn’t understand the cognition as deeply as you thought, or you really didn’t understand classrooms.

So you think it’s not just misinterpretations of the science causing challenges, but scientists not fully understanding the classroom context, too?

Yes, but even in basic science there is a key question: how confident are you that the model being used is useful?

There is a quote that Professor Dylan Wiliam uses [attributed to American statistician George EP Box]: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” And that is the first step really when you apply cognitive science to education: is the model useful?

Can you give an example?

Take the working memory model - it is very successful in accounting for a lot of data. But it is probably wrong.

In the original working memory model by Alan Baddeley, it describes working memory as an entity separate to long-term memory. You get some slightly troubling predictions that come out of that.

For example, you have long-term memories and then you have to move them in order to work with them in working memory.

But you are obviously not going to take those representations and remove them from long-term memory into this separate “space” - and the notion of space here is a metaphor anyway - and create duplicates of them.

An altogether different model is that working memory is not a separate place where you create these little shadow representations of the original. Instead, working memory is a state of long-term memory. Long-term memories take on certain characteristics that show they are being used in working memory. 

Is that difference important?

The truth is, since I started writing about working memory for teachers in 2005, those competing models of memory were both around. I didn’t mention that latter model, but today I would say that model is better supported than the original where you have the different boxes.

Yet I still use that box model. Why? Because it is really complicated to explain the other. And they make identical predictions for the classroom, and the difference doesn’t matter for the classroom.

The way in which the working memory model is useful is that it contains certain ideas that have a lot of predictive value in classrooms.

So this is a really good example of simplification. I am talking about a legitimate scientific model, but, if pressed, I would say the other model fits the data better. But for the purposes of making the model useful to people, some simplification is obviously going to be necessary.

Dan Willingham on memory, phonics and metacognition

When we test these translations, and a study fails to show an impact, people often blame the implementation rather than the idea. But if teachers struggle to implement, or the researchers struggle to keep the fidelity to the idea, does that not tell us something useful about its utility or accessibility?

I completely agree it does.

There is this tendency among researchers where they recognise that if implementation doesn’t happen the way they want, then they won’t get the results they want, so they get teachers under their thumbs and script them and say: “This is exactly how you should do it.” And if it doesn’t work then they say: “Well, teachers didn’t do it right.”

That is a dumb way of setting up an intervention and conducting a study.

First of all, it is asking for a lot of faith from teachers. For them to say: “Yeah, we’ll do exactly what you say, we are the dummies, thank you so much for coming up with your intervention and finally showing us this alien system so our students can thrive.” I mean, it’s ridiculous.

But even if you were incredibly charming and teachers were desperate for your intervention, unexpected things will happen in the classroom. Teachers have to wing it a certain amount of the time. So, if they don’t understand what is behind your intervention - if they don’t know what the core aspect of it is (where they can’t be flexible), and where bits are “frills” or less important (where they can be more flexible) - they can’t implement it. 

And even for that core bit, they may need to think on the fly of a different way of achieving that same endpoint.

Many of the ideas that people do tend to be very prescriptive about revolve around memory. Do you ever worry the interpretation has been oversimplistic - for example, the connection between memory and effort?

Effort itself is never doing anything [directly to memory]; effort is engaging some cognitive processes of which memory might be a byproduct. Your brain is completely insensitive as to whether you want to remember something.

That makes sense when you consider how much random stuff you seem to remember without making any effort at all…

Yes! It does seem sensible in retrospect that the odds you will know, on the spot, that this is something that I am going to want to remember later are not so good.

What I will say is, if you are feeling strong emotion - joy, fear or anger - you definitely get an uptick in memory. But also our brains seem to be very interested in causality. Presumably, that is to enable us to predict what is going to happen. So causality plays a big role in memory, too.

One of the main focus areas of your work with schools other than memory has been around reading. Have you been pleased to see more talk around comprehension now, rather than the domination of phonics?

I am glad we have reached a point in the conversation where people are thinking beyond phonics. When all you talk about is phonics, it is easy to make the assumption that phonics will save us all. I have been guilty of that with knowledge: I am so persuaded that a lack of knowledge is a problem in the US system specifically that I talk about it a lot, but actually, there is so much else. For example, metacognition strategies for reading. This should absolutely be taught.

We seem to be less systematic in our approach to teaching comprehension than with phonics or spelling. Is that because it is necessarily more complex?

It’s such a different beast to phonics. You could formularise the process for reading a specific text or set of texts, but not beyond that.

And while metacognitive strategies for reading are mostly taught, the difference here is background knowledge. People are most effective and most confident reading topics they know most about.

Then there is the added complexity that what counts as comprehensible is going to vary across students. You can’t just say, “This is a text appropriate for 12-year-olds.” In which classroom? With which pupils? You need to really know your students. How self-confident as readers are they? How persistent are they? How resilient are they when encountering difficult texts? This should all play a role in our resource choices.

To comprehend, we need the background knowledge, we need to teach children techniques for reading difficult texts, and we need to be mindful of their self-image of themselves as readers based not on us telling them how great they are, but on evidence of successful reading.

Dan Willingham on memory, phonics and metacognition

If we turn to the book, it is essentially a user guide for metacognitive strategies - an incredibly detailed explanation of how to use some really core skills for learning. Do you believe these are skills that should be explicitly taught in schools?

Absolutely. As for what and when, the guideline is really: what are you asking a student to do? Don’t ask children to do things that you have not taught them to do, expecting them to work it out on their own.

This seems like it should be pretty intuitive, but you have to notice that you are asking them to do something different and that’s not always easy.

There is a good example of this in the book looking at spaced practice. We tell students that spaced practice will really help them study. As a teacher, we need to face up to the fact that spaced practice requires planning, or more specifically, students’ planning. You might say: “Two weeks out, do a little study, then one week out, and then do a little more.”

Realistically, this may not be enough [for them to understand what to do]. It’s like instructions for something that should be really simple, like a toaster, and you are looking at the instructions and you just can’t figure it out. And the manufacturer says: “Well the instructions are there, it is your problem.” But actually, they should have made the damn toaster easier to use.

It’s the same thing for spaced practice planning. You can’t say, “Spaced practice is fabulous, I can’t help it if they don’t do it properly”. No! That is your job. If you want them to do spaced practice, you need to teach them how to plan in a way that actually makes sense to them and in a way that they will actually do it.

You move through many different strategies like this in the book and you talk about the need for teachers to be able to diagnose where students are getting these things wrong. How easy is that to do?

There are lots of things that have to be in place for a student to be successful. So diagnosis of what is going wrong even on these simple strategies is really important.

Most students are very narrow in their thinking about what might be going wrong. I have never had a student come in and say they think their notes are bad, but when I look, their notes are terrible. They are doing memorisation really well, but they don’t know what is going on because their notes are so poor.

In terms of diagnosing this, I am optimistic, as [teachers] do it all the time. If a student comes in and says: “I am working really hard, but I am not getting good results in your class,” the first thing I ask is: “What are you doing?” Because students always think they just need more time and more effort.

In an ideal world, metacognition would be taught systematically, right? So we have to do less diagnosis?

Metacognition is a lot simpler than a lot of other types of learning. You can say testing yourself is a really good way of learning, and here is how you could do that - and did you know that testing yourself is really good for memory? This is all a one-time thing. It is a lot simpler to teach them this than, say, how to write well.

All of these things should be built systematically into a curriculum. If you are really mindful across grades, then a teacher of 14-year-olds has a class who have all had similar preparation. If you leave these things to chance, and you are not systematic in your curriculum, then you have a lot of differences in preparation in that class.

How domain-specific are these skills, though? Are there some that are general and some that are much narrower in where they are applicable?

There are some principles that carry across domains, and then there are domain-specific principles that increasingly become important as a child progresses through the education system.

An obvious difference in schooling is how you would study for a maths or science test compared with a history test. Memory doesn’t change, but how you probe that memory does. The tasks you are going to be asked to do in the examination change.

Application is also important. It is pretty easy to teach children metacognitive principles of what makes science science that they can memorise and write down in an exam. But applying it is very different.

I can understand the scientific method for cognitive science and I am pretty good at that, but as soon as I move out of cognitive science, even to clinical psychology, I am pretty bad at it. Once I get to biology, I may only be a little better than a random person on the street, because I don’t know any biology.

So evaluating the soundness of a scientific experiment is very knowledge-domain-specific, but the basics of the approach are not.

A counter-example would be evaluating some historical sources you are handed, and you have good reason to think they are reliable, and you are supposed to put them together into an essay to make them make sense, there is a lot more domain generality there. It is essentially writing something for someone so it makes sense. So that is a more domain-general skill.

Domain generality changes as you gain more expertise, though. If you are just starting to learn the general skill of writing a 500-word essay, you will be much more successful learning that if you start with content that you understand pretty well. It is really only pretty advanced journalists who can plunge into an area they know very little about and write that essay. So expertise does interact with domain specificity.

All of these examples of techniques in the new book - and indeed in much of your work - aim to make us more successful learners. As a final question, some claim that success breeds motivation, so if we follow your instructions, will we all become voracious learners of everything?

It is an imperfect relationship. If you understand something, you are more likely to like it, but it’s not a guarantee. There are things I am perfectly competent in but that don’t interest me much.

I will say this, though: the reverse is definitely more true. If I don’t understand something, then I don’t want to tangle with it.

Professor Daniel Willingham is a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of books such as Why do students not like school? His new book, Outsmart Your Brain, is available from 2 February

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