How do skills develop? Cognitive neuroscience offers some insights


By Helen Abadzi, Senior Education Specialist, Global Partnership for Education

Developing countries want their citizens to acquire and use complex skills, but there is much debate over the best ways to achieve this (as the 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report will examine). Yet specific answers do exist, and they come from cognitive science. People everywhere learn, think and make decisions using the same general cognitive rules, which outline what the average human mind can and cannot do.

Short-term memory, or working memory, holds the information that you are currently thinking of.  According to some studies, it can retain only about seven items of information for only about 12 seconds. If we take too long to read, by the end of a sentence we have forgotten the beginning. So fluency is essential, whether it be in reading, writing, calculating, using a cell phone, checking electric circuits or throwing ingredients into a pot.  And we must do these low-level tasks automatically, without thinking much, otherwise our working memory gets flooded and we cannot continue.

How does fluency arise?  Our mind is set up to combine easily two items or movements.  With practice, those chunks then get combined with two others and become one bigger chunk.  With more practice, that bigger chunk gets combined with others.

But many schools in developing countries cannot give students the explicit instruction and practice needed to build long, automated chains of skills. Students often leave their mother tongue behind in grade 1 to learn reading through official languages with complex spelling systems, such as English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Schools may waste 70% of instructional time in absenteeism and the rest in blackboard copying, since there are often few textbooks.

Teachers may interact with only the few who can keep up, while the rest stay illiterate and drop out. Even those better students (and it takes a genius to learn under these circumstances) may read only 80 words per minute in grade 10, compared with 250 for a child the same age in a developed country. At that speed, it may take five minutes just to get to the end of a page, by which time you have forgotten the beginning.

In addition, some low-level skills, such as holding a pencil, playing music or distinguishing a letter shape in milliseconds, may have “sensitive periods” – they are best learned before puberty.  The ability to become proficient in skills that depend on these low-level functions declines with time.

To perform in 21st century jobs, more is needed than well-practiced chains of procedures.  Workers must make decisions in split seconds that are optimal for a certain situation, and they must think critically.  Some people say that children and youth need to acquire the “4Cs”: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.  But these are all complex processes that depend on lower-level components.

Unfortunately, faculties of education do not teach cognitive science, and these principles are not widely known.  So some public documents suggest that complex skills can somehow emerge with little instruction or practice, or without proficiency in lower-level component skills.

Such misunderstanding is embodied in the competency-based curricula that have become fashionable.  Students who may be counting on their fingers are somehow expected to perform – fluently and quickly – various parts of a complex operation. But instead they may fumble, get lost in the sequences and waste instructional time that could have been spent in automatizing the underlying skills.

To build long chains of automatized skills, certain ingredients are needed at all educational levels, from early childhood to technical, higher and non-formal education. Countries should use this knowledge explicitly to set education and training policy goals:

• fluency in the prerequisite skills for a given level, such as fluent reading and math in grades 1-2, fast writing for university;
• remedial learning if students lack component skills,
so that they can catch up and prepare for the next academic level or for work;
• textbooks or a structured set of materials for each student to take home for practice;
• use of allotted time for instruction, practice and reconfiguration of concepts,
to avoid wastage of classroom time
• teacher training for the appropriate activities,
in subject matter and in methodology;
• frequent feedback and reinforcement for teaching staff;
• assessment of learning,
to enable feedback and accountability.

To get to the “4Cs”, in other words, students must become very fluent in the “3 Rs”: reading, writing and arithmetic. Lower primary education still remains the highway to high-level skills.

Helen Abadzi can be reached at

Photo: Children at a local school in Sullu, West Darfur, Sudan, where they are taught by three volunteer teachers. Many schools in developing countries cannot give students the explicit instruction and practice needed to build long, automated chains of skills. (UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran)



  1. To the best of your knowledge, are there any structures in place or plans to provide structure in developing countries to promote fluency in pre-requisite skills, remedial learning when warranted, appropriate textbooks, or teacher training?

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