President Biden recently announced plans to fund efforts to address the shortage of teachers, a situation that has been building for many years and accelerated because of the pandemic. There is no question that the nation needs a larger, better trained and more diverse group of teachers. But having all the teachers we need can’t “fix” learning and believing that it can largely ignores what the science and the research tell us about student outcomes.

To fix learning, it is important to remember that Cognitive skills are the foundation for learning. These are the skills that determine whether information ever gets into our brains, whether it sticks, whether we understand it and whether we can do anything useful with it later. Think of them as the mental processes our brains use to take in, give meaning to, organize, manipulate, store, retrieve, apply and act on information from the outside world. Cognitive skills  include the five main stages of processing that help us learn and think, solve problems, collaborate and create, and include reception, perception, memory, direction and thinking.

What the science says very clearly is that 50 percent of the variability in student achievement is explained by cognitive skills. If you were to take two students who have gone to the same school for 13 years and one gets As and the other gets Ds, half of that difference, more than any other factor, is determined by those students’ cognitive skills. Research funded by the National Science Foundation and presented this week further validated earlier research, specifically related to math.

Not quite as important, but a critical factor nonetheless, is students’ social and emotional competence, considering things like whether they were motivated and engaged, whether they sought out help when they had a problem, and whether they were even self-aware enough to know that they were having a problem. 20 percent to 25 percent of the variability in student outcomes is driven by SEL.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that we spend 75 percent of our public education money, some $550 billion per year, on factors that account for less than a third of student outcomes, and we spend less than 5 percent on the most important factor – improving cognitive skills – which is now proven to determine half of all learning outcomes.

In one report of the President’s plans, an education policy expert was quoted as saying, “If you think about it, what is education? It’s teaching. You have to have a teacher to do the teaching. You can’t get anything else done without a teacher in the classroom.”

We agree that teachers have a very important place in the learning process, perhaps the second most important role. But the individual learner is by far, without a doubt the most important person in the learning process. The quoted education expert, a research analyst at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, missed the point by a country mile. And that may be the problem with the folks who want to reinvent public education by doing the same things we have always done, only more.

In our view, education is not about teaching, it is about learning. Yes, teachers are needed, but having teachers in classrooms does not guarantee that learning will take place.

Unfortunately, these types of reports and discussions are never about learning; they treat learning as if it were only a function of teaching.

For too many educators, every issue is a nail, and every solution is a hammer. The nail is instruction, and the hammer is the teacher. With this tried-and-true system of ours, almost 70 percent of our students routinely perform below grade level, both in-school and upon graduation.

The formula for learning involves many components working together effectively and efficiently. Would a baseball manager send a ballplayer to the plate without a bat, with pitches flying at them 100 miles per hour, and expect them to hit home runs? Of course not, since the bat represents 50 percent of their ability to hit the ball.

For students who learn differently because they have different cognitive strengths and weaknesses than the top 30 percent of students, going to school can feel like standing at the plate with teaching and curriculum coming at them at 100 miles an hour, and not having a bat.

It’s time to rethink the way we serve our learners. That doesn’t mean ignoring the teacher shortage, but we certainly can’t stop there. It is imperative that teachers understand how all their students learn so they can facilitate learning experiences designed to optimize learning, and all students get the appropriate comprehensive integrated cognitive training to build their learning capacities. This is the way to realize sustainable improvements in our learning outcomes. It is exactly that simple. And exactly that difficult.

The military uses the concept of a force multiplier to describe something that allows the same number of personnel or weapons to accomplish greater feats. Understanding how to build cognitive capacity in our learners is a force multiplier. Imagine how much more powerful our teachers would be if our learners had a greater capacity to learn.

So, by all means, we need to expand our teaching force. And we need to empower both teachers and students with the force multiplier of cognitive assessment and training. 

For more information concerning the research on the predictive value of cognitive skills for student outcomes: Educational Equity through a Cognitive Lens


About the authors

Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University.


Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of BrainWare Learning Company. For the last decade, Stark championed the effort to bring comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment within reach of everyone. It started with a very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, he pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool based on over 50 years of trial & error clinical collaboration. Stark also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online in the world. Follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari