What we have learned from cognitive research

iStock_000003541361SmallMost researchers in cognition believe that it is too early to package research knowledge in readily available form for classroom use, yet, until then, there is much relevant theory that educators can use to evaluate current instruction. Importantly, much cognitive-science research appears to be helpful in addressing such practical problems as teaching to the wide range of student achievement and ability levels found in classrooms.

Lauren B. Resnick, of the Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, writes that cognitive-science research is enabling us to identify more precisely the reasoning processes used by both successful and less successful thinkers.

Understanding how successful thinkers reason has led researchers to several conclusions about how education can be restructured to facilitate learning. One important insight into learning processes is that successful thinkers exhibit what researchers call “metacognition”. That is, they think about what they are doing or reading while they are doing it, continuously evaluating their understanding and using strategies to improve their understanding as needed. Learners who are not successful, on the other hand, do not adequately assess their understanding.

Resnick reports also, research has shown that young children engage in complex thinking tasks which previously had been considered beyond their ability. This has lead researchers to the conclusion that so-called higher-order thinking skills are not always preceded by a certain level of basic skill or knowledge. Children construct their own knowledge on the basis of what they already know and through interactions with their environment. What young children do not have, they say, is the abstract or symbolic language to communicate these complex ideas.

Implications for teaching

Researchers theorize that as children interact with the world, they develop intuitive ideas about it. These ideas are not always correct and reflect misconceptions about the world. Researchers working in math and science areas stress that such naive or erroneous ideas developed in early childhood can greatly interfere with learning unless they are exposed and challenged.

Multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank exercises do not adequately engage the child in exploration and confrontation of these deeply held beliefs. Therefore, teaching skills in small, discrete units or testing isolated bits of knowledge is probably not the most effective way to facilitate learning. Cognitive scientists believe that when the curriculum reduces a subject to drill and rote learning and ignores the experiential knowledge children already have acquired, classroom learning becomes much less effective.

Although researchers believe that metacognition is one of the most important concepts to emerge from cognitive-science research, many researchers are, at this stage, uncertain of the best way to teach metacognitive skills. Metacognitive skills learned in one content area have not readily transfered to another and, therefore, researchers are reluctant to make recommendations. Experimental programs must be replicated successfully in a variety of classrooms before recommendations can be made for use in schools.

Collaboration on learning tasks is recognized as important because talking about learning tasks and the problems that arise during classwork exposes students’ ideas and renders their metacognitive strategies observable to themselves, their peers, and their teachers. Classrooms are using more reasoning and problem-solving activities in place of drill work, in part, because students are more likely to become actively involved and motivated by these more interesting tasks.

Also, the importance of skills can be better understood and appreciated by students if they are given the opportunity to use those skills in solving problems or explaining ideas. For this reason, teachers are incorporating skill instruction and practice within more complex activities and projects.

Reciprocal teaching

Cognitive theory provides a foundation for explaining the success of certain instructional programs. Reciprocal Teaching, for example, is one program that many educators and researchers believe has demonstrated success in increasing reading comprehension. Primarily, it teaches students the strategies that expert readers automatically use to monitor their reading comprehension. Various forms of this method are currently being used and tested around the country.

In Reciprocal Teaching, students learn to ask for clarification when they come to words they do not understand. They take turns being the teacher and help classmates to practice summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting events. In classrooms using Reciprocal Teaching, the teacher begins the year by modeling this metacognitive behavior and then calls on the better students to do the same. As practice continues, all students develop the ability to use these strategies and to assume the role of teacher. Even among those with widely divergent skill levels, students are comfortable working on the same task toward the same goal because they can work at an appropriate level and develop proficiency at their own rate.

Resnick, however, criticizes the commercial “thinking skills” programs on the market. She reports that there is little evidence that they are effective and contends that more content-specific applied studies in classrooms are needed.

Resnick and colleagues conclude that it is difficult to evaluate innovations in teaching based on cognitive theory because there are not tests that can adequately measure its effects. In fact, many researchers of cognition see current tests as an impediment to constructive change in classroom instruction. Their goal is to develop an examination system that would measure complex, integrated skills and the application of knowledge, rather than isolated facts and individual skills. Resnick and the Learning Research and Development Center, in connection with the National Center on Education and the Economy, are working to develop such an examination system based on national standards in each subject area. They believe that, ultimately, what gets tested gets taught and, therefore, they view assessment as a lever to bring about curricular change.

“Thinking About Thinking”, Education Week Special Section October 9, 1991, pp. 1-16.

Published in ERN January/February 1992 Volume 5 Number 1

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