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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Teaching Minds: How cognitive science can save our schools






The response to my last outrage has been enormous. But I see that people can't get over the idea of teaching subjects let alone think that some particular subject we teach in high school matters.

We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But why? 

It is not easy to question something that everyone takes for granted. It is especially not easy when the very source of all our concerns in education can be easily traced to this one decision: to organize school around academic subjects. How else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around cognitive processes. In 1892, when the American high school was designed, we didn’t know much about cognition. Now we do. It is time to re-think school.

School, at every age, needs to be designed around these processes, since it is through these processes that everyone learns. Academic subjects are irrelevant to real learning. They are not irrelevant to the education of academics of course. But, how many people really want to need to become experts in the academic fields?

Here is a list of twelve critical thinking processes. These processes are as old as the human race itself. The better one is at doing them the better one survives:

Twelve cognitive processes that underlie all learning are:

Conscious Processes


1. Prediction: determining what will happen next 
2. Modeling: figuring out how things work
3. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
4. Values: deciding between things you care about 



Analytic Processes

1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
2. Planning: determining a course of action
3. Causation: understanding why something happened
4. Judgment: deciding between choices

Social Processes


1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do 
2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal 
3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
4. Description: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others 


All of these processes are part of a small child’s life as well as a high functioning adult’s life. Education should mean helping people get more sophisticated about doing these things through the acquisition of a case base of experience. Teaching should mean helping people think about their experiences and how to think more clearly about them. Unfortunately, education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world.

Creating an exciting and enjoyable educational experience for students is important at all levels of schooling.  Lecturing and learning by the accumulation of facts cannot possibly be of educational value.

7 comments:

jeff a. taylor said...

If we don't get rid of the 19th c. approach in the next 5 or 10 yrs. then it'll never happen.

Right now, with 30 days lead time, you COULD replace the entire default 19th c. guts of a school with Kindle Fires and an intranet.

But there is simply too much institutional inertia in place to make such a common-sense change to mere media.

Pitching 19th c. content over the side is several orders of magnitude more difficult.

jeff a. taylor said...

If we don't get rid of the 19th c. approach in the next 5 or 10 yrs. then it'll never happen.

Right now, with 30 days lead time, you COULD replace the entire default 19th c. guts of a school with Kindle Fires and an intranet.

But there is simply too much institutional inertia in place to make such a common-sense change to mere media.

Pitching 19th c. content over the side is several orders of magnitude more difficult.

David Baume said...

Do keep going with this particular outrage! Subjects have so outlived their usefulness as a major organising principle for schooling.
I like your cognitive processes list. But - we'll have to be sure it doesn't just turn onto another 12 subjects. I know that's not your intention. But academics can subvert anything!
There's a whole world out there learners can apply these skills to. There, where cognitive skills and the real and imagined worlds meet - that's where the good learning happens.
Good luck on your quest.

David Baume said...

Do keep going with this particular outrage! Subjects have so outlived their usefulness as a major organising principle for schooling.
I like your cognitive processes list. But - we'll have to be sure it doesn't just turn onto another 12 subjects. I know that's not your intention. But academics can subvert anything!
There's a whole world out there learners can apply these skills to. There, where cognitive skills and the real and imagined worlds meet - that's where the good learning happens.
Good luck on your quest.

Roy Strang said...

I have enjoyed these post alot. An educator for 20 years I too have become weary off the current system being used. Scarier yet are those who are making the decision are doing So for political gain in most cases if not being the politicians themselves. Cognition and analytical thought are valid areas to persue the problem will be the paradigm shift that occurs with this that most people will refuse to accept as it will confuse those who have been traditionally educated and they will fear the shift as it will put them as having less intelligence then there children. Please keep it up.

Emily said...

Organizing around cognitive processes is a provocative idea...possibly a good one, if we can ever come up with a list everyone could agree on! I've seen many lists like yours by cognitive psychologists, and every single one was a little different.

To play devil's advocate, one reason for organizing in terms of school subjects is that in college, research and various professions, knowledge is organized into such disciplines, and each discipline has its own "thinking tools" for making sense of the world. A philosopher's, mathematician's, historian's, and literary critic's ideas of a "good argument" are very different, and their ideas of how to "prove a point" likewise. We do kids a disservice if we don't introduce them to the cognitive tools in these disciplines, and if kids don't even know that disciplines of knowledge exist, how can they learn the ways of thinking they entail? Many cognitive scientists would say ood thinking is NOT domain general, and neither is creativity. I fail to understand why you think cognitive science supports NOT teaching in terms of disciplinary knowledge?

editor said...

Aren't subjects just a method for teaching the cognitive process? Study history or psychology and you learn patterns of behavior, and learn how to predict behavior. Study any branch of engineering to learn how to determine a course of action (you learn to build a bridge, but you also learn to plan a course of action). Learn any team sport in PE, and you learn getting along with others and working toward a common goal. Studying art helps you communicate your thoughts.

Education is cross training for life outside school. Subjects are just the various drills you execute in that training.