How Children Learn

26 January 2011


On 25 January 2011, CSaP and Cambridge Assessment jointly delivered a seminar for Parliamentarians on the subject of "how children learn". The discussion that followed ranged widely across a number of important topics.

Professor Usha Goswami (Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge) discussed how children learn in the early years, through infant and junior school. In particular, she noted the importance of developing language skills early, before children learn to read, and described the evidence for both the difficulties - and the crucial importance - of getting early years education right.

Professor Robert Burden (Emeritus Professor in Educational Psychology and Educational Studies, University of Exeter) talked about secondary education. He emphasised the importance of putting learning in context: cultural, historical and psychological, as well as the school and classroom context. Of critical importance, in terms of determining the success, is the role in motivating individuals played by parents (particularly in the early years) and peers (particularly in the teenage years).

Professor Trevor Robbins (Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Cambridge) concluded the initial presentations by bridging the first two areas. He distinguished different kinds of learning: perceptual (e.g. writing or music), conceptual (e.g. numbers and three-dimensional shapes), and facts (e.g. historical dates). Children's abilities in each of these different kinds of learning vary, and deficits in one or another lead to different learning difficulties. He also suggested that there are some key "break points" in learning, not all of which are recognised in education policy:for example, we know that children learn languages best when they are young, but many children do not encounter language teaching till secondary school.

The discussion that followed ranged widely across a number of important topics:

  • when to test
  • whether there is any rationale for the "infant/junior/secondary" structure of schooling
  • when to start school
  • the role of play-based learning in the earliest years, and the difference between play-based learning and playing (in the former, teachers are still setting learning targets, but delivering the learning through playing games)
  • whether there is any truth to the idea that male teachers are better for boys and female teachers are better for girls (the evidence suggests no difference)
  • what the study of special needs tells us about how children learn generally - e.g. dyslexia (reading and writing), dyscalculia (numbers), dyspraxia (co-ordination and motor skills), and ADHD.

The meeting also discussed the role of evidence in the development of education policy, with broad agreement that this is a complex issue, for two reasons. First, although there is widespread agreement about the basic science underpinning how children learn, academic opinion on how to teach children varies; this uncertainty makes difficulties for policy makers, who have to choose between alternatives with strong advocates on either side. Secondly, educational policy directly affects a lot of people, whether as teachers, students or parents - all of whom have an opinion about educational policy. This makes the application of evidence-based policy more difficult where it clashes with public opinion.

Finally, it was commented that current discussion on education policy is focussed on teaching and curricula. Perhaps the debate could move forward if people focussed more on learning and children.

(Banner image via hugrakka)