PISA, maths teaching and cognitive activation

Greg Foley is a senior lecturer in the School of Biotechnology


A recent OECD report suggested that using ‘cognitive activation’ is the best way to teach mathematics, better than what the OECD call teacher-directed instruction and also better than what they call ‘active learning’, something that in the world of the OECD seems to be a form of project-based learning.

The main characteristics of teaching based on cognitive activation seem to be:

  • Giving students hard problems, i.e. ones about which they have to think for a long time and for which there is no obvious solution or for which there might be many solutions, and for which the context might be somewhat unfamiliar.
  • Giving students the freedom to use their own procedures to solve complex problems
  • Asking students to reflect on and think about what they are doing or have done when attempting to solve problems.

When I think about what I do when I teach chemical engineering to my biotechnology students, it would appear that I am pretty much in the cognitive activation camp. Good for me you might think!

A very big chunk, probably the majority, of my ‘lecture’ time involves students working on problems that I have posed. But the idea that you learn engineering by solving problems is as old as the hills so nothing I am doing is particularly innovative. And I should stress that in all cases, I lecture first and the students solve problems second. This is not discovery learning.

But here’s the thing: for the sake of the students (not for me I hasten to add because lecturing is hard, much harder than walking around a classroom while students are solving problems) I would much rather spend more time on teacher-directed instruction (i.e. lecturing) because the price I have had to pay for adopting the in-class problem-solving approach is a large reduction in content. I’d love to be able to cover more material and trust that students would go to the library or go home and solve problems on their own or in groups with their classmates, and do so consistently. But I can’t.

And that’s the problem with a lot of discussion around education. It ignores the broader social and cultural context and it frequently fails to mention what is lost as well as what is gained as a result of some innovation or other. Yes, a student might get more out of an individual problem-solving session than a single lecture but that’s not the point. The real question is how much has a student learned, and how well have they learned it, at the end of the module.

My sense at the moment is that for whatever reason, students do not put in the hours of independent study that we expect of them and, despite all the advice we give them, they are still prone to cramming. I also believe we are in an era where a reduction in content is not seen as a bad thing; but it is.

So I think my third level students do learn better because of the way I teach. But they don’t learn as much as I would like and many (but not all) do not display the independence that I would expect of college-going young adults.