Why Alignment for Foundational Skills Matters: Cognitive Science Insights and Real-World Implications


On Tuesday, 10 November 2020 at 10:00 to 11:30 Eastern Standard Time (EST), Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) hosted a webinar drawing connections between cognitive science and the importance of aligning all components of classroom instruction to support children’s mastery of foundational skills.  Always important, alignment of instruction toward foundational skills is now a particularly urgent issue due to COVID-19 school closures and the associated learning loss.

The event featured cognitive psychologist Dr Helen Abadzi (University of Texas at Arlington) and Dr Dzingai Mutumbuka (former Minister of Education and Culture for Zimbabwe) in a fireside chat, and panellists Dr Julius Atuhurra (Twaweza East Africa) and Daniel Rodriguez-Segura (University of Virginia/RISE Tanzania) discussing their related research.

Read about this event on Twitter: #RISEFSWebinar

A recording of the webinar is available below or on YouTube.

Key takeaways from the webinar

  • This webinar explored the connections between the cognitive science of how children learn and the need for reforms in low- and middle-income countries to create alignment around foundational skills in curriculum, teaching practice, and assessment. 
  • Dr Helen Abadzi explained the cognitive science behind the development of foundational skills. 
    • Humans have two types of memory: explicit memory ("knowing that"), which holds our knowledge of facts and figures, and implicit memory (“knowing how”), which holds our knowledge of skills and procedures. 
    • We have a bias towards explicit memory because we consciously call on it all the time to remember specific facts. Implicit memory is unconscious. We don’t think about why or how we remember to read, or button a shirt, or sing a song, but it is just as, if not more, important for our development of reading and computational skills. 
    • To be effective, our implicit memory has to become automatic. Too often, curriculum in early grades does not give adequate time towards development of implicit functions, which require repetitive practice. This leaves children, especially the disadvantaged who do not get time to practice at home, behind.  
  • The two papers presented demonstrated the pitfalls of misalignment, and how greater focus on foundational skills can improve learning outcomes. 
    • Dr Julius Atuhurra presented analysis of the alignment in coverage between the prescribed curriculum, exams, and classroom instruction in Uganda and Tanzania, revealing the low alignment between these three. The poor alignment between curriculum and exams leaves teachers confused about what to teach. The low alignment between the prescribed curriculum and teachers’ actual instruction could suggest that teachers realise the curriculum is not ideal for their students and are adapting themselves, or that teachers don’t have a strong sense on their own of how their practices align to the curriculum. 
    • Daniel Rodriguez-Segura spoke about a reform in 2014/2015 in Tanzania, which reoriented the curriculum in Grades 1 and 2 so that 80 percent of instructional time was focused on foundational skills. An analysis of the learning effects of this change found that it improved scores in Kiswahili and Math significantly, had no negative effect on scores in English (for which instructional time was reduced as part of the reform), and did not hurt the scores of top performers—which had been a concern at the time the reform was enacted. 

Watch the webinar recording:

Event background

This webinar focused 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 main event was a fireside chat with Dr Helen Abadzi, a cognitive psychologist whose work focuses on education in developing countries. In this fireside chat, Dr Abadzi discussed 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 was hosted by Dr Dzingai Mutumbuka, former Minister of Education and Culture in Zimbabwe and Chair of the Association for the Development of Education in Africa. This also featured 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) explored some on-the-ground implications of these cognitive principles, drawing on new empirical studies. Dr Atuhurra's study (with co-author Michelle Kaffenberger) illustrated 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 gave a concrete example of how principles of human cognition can be applied at a systems level, with real learning gains.

Event Programme



Fireside chat 

Q&A session 

  • Open to all attendees