How do children learn?

How do children learn?

There was a lively debate about the science of how children learn and the implications this has for education policy at Cambridge Assessment’s seventh Parliamentary Research Enquiry at the Houses of Parliament.

Experts in neuroscience, psychology and education emphasised the importance of motivational and contextual influences, together with the importance of active, directed learning in ensuring that a child’s potential is realised. Those attending agreed that neuroscience needs to have a bigger impact on policymakers than at present. A fair degree of consensus emerged around the need for discourse to shift to a focus on children and learning, both in terms of cognitive and emotional development.

The event, chaired by Graham Stuart MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, was jointly organised by Cambridge Assessment, the University of Cambridge’s international exams group, and the University’s Centre for Science and Policy.

Those presenting their findings – as listed below – were questioned by UK Parliamentarians: 

  • Usha Goswami, Professor of Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge
  • Robert Burden, Emeritus Professor of Applied Educational Psychology at the University of Exeter
  • Trevor Robbins, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. 

A podcast featuring the talk given by each speaker can be downloaded through the links below.

Usha Goswami focused on how children learn at a primary level. She spoke about the way in which learning environments can maximise learning potential. However she pointed out that creating such optimal learning environments for young children requires high level skills. She also said that there had been too many empty debates around learning difficulties, for example around whether dyslexia really exists, which had prevented children from receiving early and targeted support.

Robert Burden explained, from a secondary school perspective, the role of pupil motivation which he said was the most significant contributor to successful learning outcomes. He said that how pupils perceive themselves as learners is important in contributing to educational success or failure, and that schools should seek to foster the academic self-esteem of their pupils as an integral aspect of the teaching-learning process.

Trevor Robbins then spoke about the diversity of learning processes, stressing that we are all born with certain strengths and weaknesses in different areas.

The discussions that followed spanned a number of topics including: the role that language plays in the early years; the importance of structures and support systems; whether the cognitive learning processes had determined the break points in education; and the age at which children should start school.

Cambridge Assessment’s Parliamentary Research Enquiry series is designed to bring together a wide range of professionals in education to look at ‘big picture’ topics and enable policy makers to access the knowledge of leading experts.

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