Cognitive Science Connections

We’ve been asked to think about the connections between the cognitive science concepts we’re studying and our field, and discuss the three most important implications for our field based on what we’ve covered so far. So, for a public elementary school…

Implication #1: Learning styles aren’t actually real.

“But wait!” you say. “I learn better when I can visualize the information.” “Yeah!” says your neighbor, “I need to write things down in order to understand them.” It is true that some people may have stronger visual or auditory memory than others (after all, any trait will vary throughout the population), and these people might be really good at remembering information presented in that modality. However, that doesn’t mean that an “auditory learner” will ALWAYS learn better when content is presented aurally (Willingham, 2008). You wouldn’t teach shapes to kindergarteners by giving an auditory description of a circle or a square – they won’t understand a thing you say. Shapes are visual, therefore you teach shapes by showing them images and examples (along with talking about what they look like). We need to let meaning  drive the modalities we use to present content.

Did you learn your shapes through visuals (posters, drawings, and examples) Or did your teachers describe what the shapes looked like? Image courtesy of

This is the video by Daniel Willingham I cited above. After watching it several times, I get what he’s saying.

Implication #2: By understanding the brain we can better reach our students. Even the struggling ones.

As scientists discover more about the relationships between specific brain areas and learning, they can give teachers guidance about how to teach children who have learning difficulties. This article, which I read in a recent issue of the ASCD Smart Brief, is one example of how teachers can use the advances in neuroscience to benefit our students.

Implication #3: Prior knowledge plays a huge role in learning and behavior.

We behave according to the rules and concepts that we know. Our rules and concepts are built from prior experience in our culture and society, from combinations of other rules and concepts (prior knowledge) , and from direct instruction by adults (Thagard, 2005). If our experience and knowledge does not connect or align with current problems or situations, we find ourselves in a pickle. We might flounder and feel stuck, or we might behave the way we know how – which may be inappropriate for the context. Take the example of Dapi, a kindergartener from Nepal who moved to a new school in America (Onchwari et al., 2008). He acted spontaneously and often touched the other children while they were playing. When the teacher moved his desk away from the group, he couldn’t understand why he was being punished. Dapi behaved according to his rules for school, but because he grew up in a different culture, he needs time and appropriate instruction to adjust his schema to accommodate “school in America.”

Onchwari, G., Onchwari, J.A., & Keengwe, J. (2008). Teaching the immigrant child: Application of child development theories. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(3), 267-273.

Thagard, P. (2005). Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Willingham, D. (2008, August 21). Learning styles don’t exist [Video file]. Retrieved from