As a general follow up question to last week’s conversation, what do we want our teachers and professional educators to understand regarding the distinction between cognitive and academic development of their students?
Thanks for asking. First of all, I think David Geary put it best: “Creating a learning environment that mimics the learning environment that has evolved to support the acquisition of biologically primary abilities might be necessary but is not sufficient to support the acquisition of complex biologically secondary abilities.” Geary is saying that there is nothing wrong with making the classroom a more friendly, and more human space. However, doing so will not magically lead students toward an intrinsic love of science and mathematics, etc. What we have learned in the last 50 years about development, cognition and learning is that some forms of it are natural and tied to human survival and adaptation to local conditions. However, some forms of development, cognition and learning are not natural, which sounds like a strange thing to say. An analogy might be something like the kind of dancing people do at the local dance club, versus ballet. When I say it’s not natural, I’m not suggesting anything abnormal. It’s just that some kinds of thinking and learning are more difficult, less spontaneous, and take years of training to achieve. This means not only will it be more difficult than the normal, exploratory learning children do on the basis of their natural curiosity, it’s also difficult for most of us to sustain this kind of learning for long because it’s far less intrinsically motivating. Students are just not going to “discover” reading, never mind calculus, on their own, and why should they when there are so many more interesting things going on all around them? It’s also literally true that formal schooling and training in abstract disciplines literally consume more energy and effort. Thinking that much, and that hard can be tiring (neurons are, quite literally, energy demanding forms of tissue – the brain consumes roughly 20% of the calories we take in). Educators, therefore, can’t often depend on making this kind of learning fun, entertaining, and intrinsically motivating for most students. Of course, elements of such can be infused in the classroom, but serious learning is hard work, and it takes years to achieve mastery, or expertise (a distant goal). School learning is slow, and cumulative, and knowledge heavy and attempting to avoid this process by focusing solely, or even primarily, on process at the expense of content (conceptual as well as skill based), can seem liberating, but it actually destroys what it hopes to accomplish. As Kieran Egan, no traditionalist, puts it: “Knowing where to find knowledge or poems or speeches is nothing like having that material as a part of one’s living tissue. It affects how we think and feel, and education is precisely about improving these things. The emphasis that has led away from rote learning, and in this way eventually learning by heart, has been one that gradually and greatly impoverishes minds.” However well intended process curricula may be, there’s no way out of doing the hard work of reading, memorizing, and building skills and a broad knowledge base if, that is, an educated mind is what you are after.