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Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.14.19Who’s Reading the Cognitive Science?

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Play hard & read your cognitive science

I do a fair amount of work in the sports sector: mostly working with soccer/football and rugby federations and professional franchises, talking about developing players better by teaching better.

At first I felt guilty about this work, even though I love it. How could I justify spending my time on that when public schools look like they do and there’s so much work to be done?

But I got over that very quickly because I found that I was learning so much in my sports-sector work, and the things I learned were so applicable to teaching and learning in the schools sector. And I found that the sports sector is deadly serious about accelerating learning.

One particular observation that I think is relevant: Often when I visit an organization in the sport sector, I’ll make reference to some key concept or text in cognitive science and find that almost everyone in the room has read it. I’ve worked with coaches at a couple of MLB franchises. You mention Daniel Kahneman in that setting and it seems like everyone knows who you’re talking about. In the locker room of one minor league baseball team, a coach took out his copy when I referenced it.

Same with rugby-You talk memory or attention with people at the national federations I’ve worked with and people have 15 questions that show they’ve read the research. Perception? The same. This was especially true when I visited New Zealand. New Zealand, if you don’t know, is a nation of 5M people that is the best in the world at rugby. The national identity is tied up in this excellence. There’s a LOT of pressure on them to maintain that status and so they seize on every competitive advantage they can.

You walk into a room with those coaches and they know their stuff. They know what the science of learning says. They’re talking about research constantly. There’s intense competitive pressure on them to learn faster and implement better than everybody else. That means doing your homework.

Good for them, you might say. Why are you telling me this? Because when I visit schools, I often don’t see that. Cognitive science has learned more about how people learn in the last 20 years than in the previous 300 years combined, but you visit a school or a district and talk about research on memory or perception and people haven’t read it. Few people are pulling their copy of Kahneman out of their bag. You only see that in some parts of the high performing entrepreneurial schools sector, where people are serious about proving a concept, but not in the average school.

Instead you often find people carrying around the baggage of unfounded or discredited ideas: Dewey, multiple intelligences and vague platitudes about learning by doing or teaching your peers being the best form of learning. Vygotsky’s writings from 1918 count as science.

It’s surprising and disappointing that the culture of science, the hunger to learn and to seek the best new information to get there, that you see in the best organizations–sports or schools–is not present in other organizations. To me it’s one of the things that distinguishes the most successful organizations.