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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Curriculum and Cognitive Science

What do we mean by curriculum? And why is curriculum so important? How should curriculum planning and execution be informed by cognitive science? These are, in my opinion, questions of the utmost importance.

What do we mean by curriculum?

Curriculum is the substance of what is taught, structured over time. It is the things we want students to learn while they are with us, and it is ordered on a timeline, since learning happens in time. We will return to this later.

Why is curriculum so important?

In recent times, it was widely believed in teaching that knowledge was a low-level thing and that it wasn’t really worth learning knowledge because we should be doing high-level stuff like analysing, synthesising and evaluating instead. We now know that to be false. Research has shown conclusively that skills like evaluating have significant domain- specific elements. Knowledge is what we think with, and we can only be intellectually curious about things we already know something about.

We now know from cognitive science that cognitive architecture can be conceived of as comprising two “parts“: the working memory and the long-term memory. Working memory is what we think with, and space there is very limited: it can hold only around five items at a time. If you try to hold more, something will drop out.

The long-term memory is where the things we have learned are stored. When we encounter a problem like a puzzle or an essay question, we can bring information up into our working memory from our long-term memory. The exciting thing here is that there are no known limits to space in the long-term memory. It’s not like a jar that can get full up. In fact, the more you know, the easier it is to learn new things. And the more you have stored, linked and automatised in your long-term memory, the more space you can free up in your working memory for dealing with challenging material, because of the chunking effect.

So curriculum is absolutely critical. The substance of what we plan for our children to learn will form the resources they have to draw upon when approaching problems. Knowledge in students’ long-term memory will be their toolbox when reading texts, writing essays, wrestling with problems, and thinking in general. Curriculum stocks the toolbox and the materials store.

If we want students to get cleverer, to be better able to analyse, evaluate, and synthesise, to be effective critical thinkers and problem solvers, there are no short cuts. We must teach them lots of knowledge, and help them to remember it.

This knowledge forms our curriculum. When we build a curriculum, we have to make choices: choices about what to include, how we exemplify and illustrate, how we practise, and in what order everything comes. These decisions are not trivial. In planning curriculum we are planning to build the knowledge that our students will use in order to think – potentially for the rest of their lives.

How should curriculum be informed by cognitive science?

To plan our curriculum, we must begin at the end. We must ask: What is it that we want our students to leave us with, that they did not have when they arrived?

What we want students to gain from their time with us is rich, powerful and well-organised knowledge that they can use to think with and to understand the world and themselves. Cognitive science gives us the model of knowledge as schemas: webs of interconnected pieces of knowledge. When students join us, they have limited schemas in our subject: few pieces of knowledge, few connections, and possibly misconceptions:

We want them to leave us with dense, well-linked and well-organised schemas – in other words, we want them to have learnt lots of high-quality knowledge in the subject.

As experts in our subject, we have good schemas in our heads for our subject.* However, brains being what they are, we can’t just take copies of our schemas and insert them into the brains of our students. Schemas aren’t copied: they are built.

Building happens over time. Time and content are the two critical characteristics of curriculum.

When we make houses, we don’t see a house, copy it, and paste it onto the ground. We look carefully at the parts of the house and their materials, we look at how they will all fit together in the end, the roles of the walls, struts and beams, and we plan out a sequence of building so that we can build the house over time. We want it to be beautiful, long-lasting, and for each subsequent piece to be supported by what has already been built. We must do the same with curriculum. Schemas are like houses and we must plan how we build them.

Effective curriculum planning and implementation must be informed by cognitive science so that the building of schemas can be successful.

In planning curriculum we must consider first the content itself, or rather the content headlines. This will be a mixture of substantive and disciplinary knowledge: the claims or pieces produced by the discipline, and the rules and procedures for working within the subject. These are the main features of the house: the walls, roof, doors and windows. In science, there are fewer decisions to be made regarding content headlines, and this is for several reasons: it is a “vertical” subject with relatively well-agreed necessary prior knowledge for further study; and the national curriculum and specifications in the UK are pretty good, with a good level of ambition and preparation for further study, and few glaring omissions; they are quite detailed. We might decide to add in additional content, perhaps because it supports other knowledge and makes it more meaningful and memorable. We might show our students the formula for resistors in parallel, for example, because it is much more satisfying and less frustrating for them than just being told “the total resistance will be less – never mind how much less!”

Were we not furnished with a reasonably well-designed national curriculum/specification, we would have to ask ourselves, what is the knowledge with the highest leverage? What knowledge brings the most understanding? What knowledge opens up the world the most? What will allow students to succeed at A-level if they pursue it? What will enrich their lives even if they choose other A-levels? And indeed, we can surmise that these are the questions that were asked when this national curriculum was created, since it is largely good, at least in science – I can’t speak for the other subjects.

In other subjects and other contexts, there are many more decisions to be made around content. In more “horizontal” subjects like history and literature, there is no obvious and finite set of foundations – you have to leave out some things, in fact you have to leave out most! The political and ethical implications here are significant but not insurmountable, as Christine Counsell shows here.

These decisions about the headlines of what to include in curriculum are critical because of cognitive architecture. If we want students to have powerful schemas, they must contain the components that apply in the largest numbers of contexts, that best illustrate the important concepts, and that give explanation to the most and most significant phenomena. You can’t think about something you know nothing about.

It is important to say here that these main features, these headlines, are not equal to the curriculum, just as the main features of the house are not equal to the house itself. They are key but they are not the totality. So even if your exam specification is perfect, it does not equal the curriculum.

So we have decided the content headlines of our curriculum. Next we must think explicitly about the links between these things. In addition to being more detailed, a key difference in the schema of experts compared to novices is that an expert’s schemas are well-organised. So I know that electrolysis, batteries, and bonding are all related by their explanation in electron charges, but this is not clear to the novice or student. We need to map out these links in order to inform both our sequencing and our explanations: these will in turn help our students to build their own well-organised schemas. When we are planning to build our house, we need to know which parts will be joined, which parts will bear load and which parts will push or pull on other parts. This will help us to plan the order of building, the materials and the techniques.

The builder must carefully map out the sequence of parts to be completed in order for the house to be successfully built. You probably start with foundations, and then walls, then floors and roof, then plastering. If you get this sequence wrong then the house will fall down. It is the same with curriculum. We must take students on a journey where later content makes sense because of earlier content. Where an area is reliant on a threshold concept, we need to have taught and secured that concept first. We are helping students to build a strong and successful schema. You can’t build a roof in mid-air.

Now we need to plan out the fullness of the curriculum. How will we explain each concept? What language do we need to define? What diagrams, stories, and examples will be the best choices to help our students to understand and build their schemas successfully? What is the hinterland that feeds the core? The builder plans the details of the materials, tools and construction. If you want an effective way to guarantee and preserve this careful planning, I have found booklets to be indispensable.

Because the strength and utility of expert schemas comes in part from the number of links between items, we must plan our curriculum to build as many links as possible. A common misconception around cognitive science and curriculum is that interleaving is a practice of splitting up topics and mixing them up: this is not what is meant by interleaving and is not an advisable practice!** What we should be doing however, is planning in our curriculum detail, where we will make links back to previously studied content, and where we will foreshadow content still to come.

Effective schemas are not only strong, they are accessible too. Throughout our curriculum we must schedule spaced retrieval practice in order to build retrieval strength, so that our students can draw upon their learning in the future. Though I would not strictly include retrieval practice as a curricular item, I mention it because a good curriculum without retrieval is a wasted one. It’s no good building a wonderful house if you can’t get to it because the road is closed.

A well-planned curriculum is beautiful. It is rewarding both to create and to teach, and it should lie at the heart of everything we do. Our subjects deserve to be passed on to all students, and our students deserve to learn this wonderful knowledge. Through curriculum, we build and treasure.

*Though we probably have some gaps, and must be confident about addressing these if we want the best for our students.

** Spaced practice, on the other hand, where the revision of already encoded material is split up and spaced, is an effective method for building retrieval strength.

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