Measuring the Unmeasured: What is Heuristic Cognition?

Dr Simon Walker is Director of Research at Human Ecology Education, a company researching the contribution of heuristic cognition to the educational outcomes of primary, secondary and tertiary pupils.

Heuristic cognition, from the Greek ‘to discover’, refers to how the brain engages with the real world. For the past 100 years, education has focused narrowly on IQ as the critical cognitive capacity that drives academic outcomes. IQ gives a decent account of the brains’ ability to perform complex computations with knowledge it already has; however, it is less relevant to how the brain tackles novel challenges and real world situations. For example, thinking about going shopping to a supermarket and how to shop most efficiently. To achieve that, the brain has to process many different kinds of data simultaneously- about prices, store layout, people’s movements, signage. It has to track down maybe 100 specific items from a range of many tens of thousands; it has to filter out noise, distraction; it has to interpret offers, judge against budgets; it has to work out when to ask for help, whether an offer is a real offer, how to select the shortest queue…. All this requires heuristic cognition; the cognitive process that directs how we navigate and engage with the world as it comes towards us.

Education needs to prepare young people for the world they will live and work in. That world rarely comes in the form of paper-based tests and long essays. Many employers these days are complaining that graduates are un-ready for the tasks and skills actually required in the work place, despite getting good degrees. Those employers need schools to develop not just student’s academic ability but their real-world cognitive abilities.

We are running a large scale research programme called ‘Measuring the Mind’ to understand the contribution of heuristic cognition to both academic and non-academic student outcomes. For example, from our research, we know that it is a critical and early indicator of mental health risks- an increasing problem in high performing students, especially girls. We also know that it contributes up to 20% to academic outcomes in some subjects at GCSE and A Level. We know some schools are better at fostering it than others. We think there may be a potential dividend for schools by developing student’s heuristic capacity that is currently untapped and unmeasured.


Currently we have 22 schools and 10,000 students involved in a cross-sectoral secondary school study which was endorsed by the Wellington Learning and Research Centre and sponsored by Sir Anthony Seldon. We also have a primary and prep school programme launching in a group of schools in London next year, as well as an international programme. It’s a multi-year study and each year, new schools can get involved. There is a modest annual registration fee and school leaders should get in touch if they would like their school to take part.

I’m very excited about them. My hopes are that schools will recover their confidence as places of learning as well as outcomes. A relentless focus on outcomes have made some teachers forget (or lose confidence) that they too are learners; I see the school-based research agenda as rebuilding teacher’s confidence, curiosity and energy in discovering and learning about their craft for themselves. However, research is always a cost: in time and money. It needs brave school and governmental leaders to recognise the benefit of this investment.

To find out more about whether your school could be part of the ‘Measuring the Mind’ programme go to