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This newsletter is the thirteenth in a series on complexity. Our
informal and formal educational systems, and our everyday life
experiences, help us learn to deal with the complexities of complexity.
Understanding and Mastering Complexity:
The Five New Cognitive Complexities
that Teachers Confront
Abraham S. Fischler School of Education
Nova Southeastern University
Center for Innovative Education and Prevention
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
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at www.brainsmart.org.
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