Understanding and Mastering Complexity: The Five New Cognitive Complexities that Teachers Confront

Donna Wilson
Abraham S. Fischler School of Education
Nova Southeastern University

Marcus Conyers
Center for Innovative Education and Prevention

Introduction

Many dismiss teaching as a simple job. American adults often think they know what it takes to teach because they observed teachers for at least 13 years. Even many of those who became teachers may rely more on their student recollections than on professional training as the primary basis of how to teach—in effect quickly skimming and/or ignoring their program’s advice on how to incorporate cognitive neuroscience and computer technology into classroom instruction.

During the past 50 years teaching has profoundly moved its focus from a disembodied mind to a biological brain, and from paper to powerful portable computers. This escalation increased tremendously over this past decade. Our own work in teacher education and staff development during this period suggests that education should institute a systems perspective on how best to solve the instructional complexities that teachers daily confront. Teachers must still enhance learning within a diverse set of students, realizing that all students have individual capabilities and challenges and the potential to learn.

We’ve focused on two emerging issues that we’ll explore below: (1) what advances from mind, brain, and education will potentially enhance student learning in our increasingly complex society, and (2) how we can make these advances engaging and practically useful to educators.

Shifting the Focus of Education

It’s becoming increasingly clear that education needs to shift from the simple transmission of facts toward cultivating minds that can recognize and creatively solve novel problems, communicate and work effectively with many others, and embrace self-directed, continual learning throughout one‘s lifetime. A report from the National Research Council on “Education for Life and Work” (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012) identified three domains of 21st-century competencies that require explicit instruction: cognitive (thinking and reasoning), intrapersonal (regulating one’s behaviors and emotions to achieve goals), and interpersonal (relating to others and understanding others’ points of view).

Teachers must direct the instructional transition from a narrow emphasis on lesson content to incorporating the concomitant goal of guiding students to “learn how to learn.” They will need the support of administrators and policy makers at the local and state level to expand their mission to equip all students with the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive in college, the workplace, and a global society. Theory and research from educational neuroscience and the field of mind, brain, and education fortunately identify effective strategies for such teaching and learning. These strategies also address the professional complexities of teaching by engaging preconceptions, developing a conceptual framework, and engaging in metacognitive thinking (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

We worked with the Florida Department of Education in the late 1990s to lead a series of workshops for teachers who then conducted action research in their classrooms to deepen their understanding of the possible applications of educational neuroscience discoveries and then to share what they had learned with colleagues. Three years of working and modeling with those teachers led to the development of graduate degree programs with a major in Brain-Based Teaching with the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University. The programs retained the action research component to better facilitate integration of the material studied and to underscore the need for teachers to manage the complicated work of guiding students to achieve more of their learning potential. It also added to the school district’s knowledge base of effective teaching practice.

Toward a Conceptual Framework of Teaching and Learning

New findings that have great potential significance to educators arise regularly, and many educators are intrigued by what these discoveries might mean for teaching and learning in their classrooms. In the last few years, to name just two examples, the neuronal underpinnings for metacognition have been identified, and new studies support the malleability of working memory (Fleming, Huijgen, & Dolan, 2012; Klingberg, 2011). How can we as educators analyze and identify the potential for acting on this exciting research? Establishing a conceptual framework of core concepts that are at the foundation of this approach of “cultivating minds” can help educators more clearly identify how emerging findings might fit into the toolkit of their professional practice.

In Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching, we explore major cognitive discoveries as the building blocks of such a framework (Wilson & Conyers, 2013). A brief synthesis of the research follows:

  1. Neurocognitive plasticity: How can we best keep the concept of neuroplasticity front of mind at all levels for students, teachers, administrators, and parents? The dominant, but often unacknowledged, paradigm has been that the brain is fixed, that each of us is born with a predetermined cache of intellectual capacity. Setting aside this misconception can be immensely motivating for teachers as they embrace their capabilities to keep learning and growing throughout their careers and beyond. Further, student achievement is also predicated on the recognition that virtually all students can become “functionally smarter” when supported with both effective instruction and their willingness to undertake the sometimes difficult work required to advance academically. Understanding the concept of neuroplasticity can empower students to take charge of their learning and to more accurately attribute the causes of their successes and setbacks. It can also positively support a change in expectations about student learning potential.
  2. Potential: How can we eliminate the divide between mission statements celebrating the potential of all students to succeed and the more deeply held assumptions that belie those sentiments? These assumptions arise, for example, in the practice of reserving instruction on higher order literacy and thinking skills for students identified as gifted while focusing on basic skills training for others. When children begin school without the reading readiness skills that their peers possess, those assumptions may lead teachers away from a focus on the intensive instruction and exposure to reading that these children need to succeed. It may also lead toward an often-unspoken belief that such students lack the cognitive potential to read on grade level with high comprehension. As a result, while almost all students have the potential to read on grade level by the end of first grade, 30% do not do so (Allington, 2011). Presenting an evidence-based case for the learning potential of all students can help eliminate this downward spiral of low expectations.
  3. Understanding intelligence: How do we move away from the view of intelligence as a single fixed entity, with IQ scores as the prime predictor of life success? This concept has a powerful gravitational pull, representing a tremendous opportunity cost that defies reality. In fact, cognitive tests predict only about 6% of the variance in job performance (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). Other malleable attributes, such as an interest in developing creative abilities, or a willingness to persist have significant impact on the trajectory of our lives. Furthermore, directing education narrowly on the cognitive skills measured in IQ tests misses out on opportunities to guide students to discover other cognitive styles that may be more suitable for them and to develop other forms of intelligence, such as their creative and practical capabilities. We need to widen our views of intelligence in a way that weaves in other big ideas from this framework to support a dynamic view of learning across the life span.
  4. Body-brain system: How do we bring our acceptance on the need for an active mind and a healthy body into a single focus on learning? Healthy nutrition, regular physical activity, and positive relationships are not “frills,” but key aspects of academic achievement. A variety of studies show that regular physical education supports school performance, and a growing body of research connects exercise and proper nutrition to enhanced frontal lobe function, attention, and recall (Ratey, 2008; Sibley & Etnier, 2003; Tomporowski, Davis, Miller, & Naglieri, 2008). In addition, a positive learning environment in which students feel safe, secure, accepted, and encouraged to take intellectual risks enhances their motivation and participation in learning.
  5. Metacognition: How can we encourage explicit instruction on the use of cognitive and metacognitive strategies to improve students’ learning across all subject areas? A wide body of educational research supports the positive impact of teaching students to think about their thinking with the aim of improving learning, and yet instruction on metacognition is nowhere near commonplace. If educators are empowered to incorporate lessons about the power of “driving their brains” from the early grades on, students will be better equipped with the cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills they will need to thrive in school, in their personal lives, and in the working world.

Imagine an education system that systematically employs a conceptual framework such as the foundations described here in developing instruction, formative assessments, and curriculum. How many more children and youth would discover the thrill of success through their own hard work and self-directed learning? How many more people would be attracted to a profession where their expertise and contributions are acknowledged and celebrated? Imagine how many people would enjoy greater well-being if they had the opportunity to master the skills of driving their brains and managing their body-brain systems more effectively. Picture a world in which young people enter the workplace and pursue their dreams as curious, competent, creative thinkers and problem solvers who can collaborate to improve the world. That is a vision worth striving for—in all its glorious complexity.

References

Allington, R.L. (2011a, August). What at-risk readers need. Best of Educational Leadership 2010–2011. 68, 40–45. Available at http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/summer11/vol68/
num10/What_At-Risk_Readers_Need.aspx
.

Bransford, J., Brown, A., & Cocking, R., eds. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. expanded ed. Washington, DC: National Academies.

Fleming, S.M., Huijgen, J., & Dolan, R.J. (2012, May 2). Prefrontal contributions to metacognition in perceptual decision making. The Journal of Neuroscience. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6489-11.2012.

Klingberg, T. (2011, September). Session four: Executive function and attention. Summary of panel discussion at Cognitive Neuroscience of Learning: Implication for Education Symposium, New York Academy of Sciences, Aspen, Colorado. Available at http://nyas.org.

Pellegrino, J.W., & Hilton, M.L. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies.

Ratey, J.J. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.

Sibley, B.A., & Etnier, J.L. (2003). The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: A meta-analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science. 15, 243–256.

Tomporowski, P.D., Davis, C.L., Miller, P.H., & Naglieri, J.A. (2008). Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement. Educational Psychology Review. 20, 111–131. doi: 10.1007/s10648-007-9057-0.

Wilson, D.L., & Conyers, M.C. (2013). Five big ideas for effective teaching: Connecting mind, brain, and education research to classroom practice. New York: Teachers College.

Authors

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers are the authors of several books, including most recently, Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press) and Flourishing in the First Five Years: Connecting Implications from Mind, Brain, and Education Research to the Development of Young Children (Rowman and Littlefield). Donna is the lead developer of doctoral, educational specialist, and master’s degree coursework focused on brain-based teaching at the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University. Marcus is the cofounder of the Center for Innovative Education and Prevention, and an international speaker on using cognitive science to improve learning, teaching, and the development of expertise.

Marcus and Donna have presented their work at many conferences, including the American Educational Research Association, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology, ASCD, and Learning Forward. They have personally shared research-based strategies with more than 150,000 educators who reach more than 1 million students. They can be reached at dwilson1@nova.edu and marcus@ciep.org. Learn more at www.brainsmart.org.

http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2013-127.html

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