RISE Webinar on 10 November: Cognitive Science and Foundational Skills

On Tuesday 10 November, RISE will host a webinar focusing on the cognitive psychology of how children build new knowledge and examining the implications of these cognitive principles for education systems.


Image of Yue-Yi Hwa

Yue-Yi Hwa

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Image of Lillie Kilburn

Lillie Kilburn

RISE Directorate

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

A growing consensus on foundational skills

A growing literature on learning outcomes suggests that to ensure quality learning for all children, education systems must prioritise mastery of foundational skills. This need has only become more urgent since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, a recent white paper from the Save our Future campaign, a global coalition of experts including UNESCO, UNICEF, the Asian Development Bank, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, and many others, said:

Foundational skills can no longer be viewed as one priority amongst many. We need to make the case that developing these skills across the entire school system and at all ages must be the key priority in low- and middle-income countries.

RISE’s webinar: insights from cognitive science

But what are the cognitive science principles underpinning the importance of foundational skills, and what implications do those principles have for education systems?

On Tuesday, 10 November 2020 from 10:00 to 11:30 Eastern Standard Time (EST), Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) will host a webinar, Why Alignment for Foundational Skills Matters: Cognitive Science Insights and Real-World Implications, which will draw connections between cognitive science and the importance of aligning all components of classroom instruction to support children’s mastery of foundational skills.


Register for the webinar


The webinar will focus on the cognitive psychology of how children build new knowledge. Human learning is cumulative: our brains incorporate new knowledge on the foundation of prior knowledge. However, national curricula and classroom practice are often paced too quickly for children to fully master the foundational knowledge that lays the groundwork for more complex content. Empirical studies suggest that if children are not properly habituated with letters, phonics, numbers, and shapes early on, they often fall behind, never to catch up. Also, due to the limits of human working memory, children may struggle to master foundational competencies if lessons and timetables are overloaded with too extensive an assortment of curricular content that competes for students’ (and teachers’) attention. These insights have tangible implications for children’s learning—especially in low- and middle-income countries, where many children do not have the advantages of learning-rich home environments.


The webinar's main event will be a fireside chat with Dr Helen Abadzi, a cognitive psychologist whose work focuses on education in developing countries. In this fireside chat, Dr Abadzi will discuss principles of human cognitive architecture and their implications for classroom learning, drawing on her rich experience, including her work at the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, and the University of Texas at Arlington. The fireside chat will be hosted by Dzingai Mutumbuka, former Minister of Education and Culture in Zimbabwe and Chair of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa. This will also feature a question and answer session open to the audience.

Prior to the fireside chat, panellists Dr Julius Atuhurra (Twaweza East Africa) and Daniel Rodriguez-Segura (University of Virginia and RISE Tanzania) will explore some on-the-ground implications of these cognitive principles, drawing on new empirical studies. Dr Atuhurra's study (with co-author Michelle Kaffenberger) illustrates how far educational reality can diverge from a structure and sequence that would support mastery of foundational skills. In tandem, Rodriguez-Segura's evaluation (with co-author Isaac Mbiti) of a Tanzanian reform that prioritised foundational literacy and numeracy gives a concrete example of how principles of human cognition can be applied at a systems level, with real learning gains.

For full details, see the event page.

Author bios:

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