Blog Post #3: Reflections on the Cognitive Science of Teaching and Learning

I’ve learned much about cognitive science within the realms of teaching and learning over the past few weeks that can strenghten my ability as an educator, as well as guide me along my own personal learning journey. In this post I explore which concepts really caught my attention and will have, I hope, positive implications for my teaching practice.

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We first looked at the mental representations of logic, rules, concepts, analogies/cases and images. While I had been vaguely familiar with each, concepts, analogies and images seem to have the best implications in my educational context. Concepts are units of information storage, grouped together because of synonymy of salient features. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2010) describes concepts as “sets of typical features” (sec. 4.3). Concepts are an important mental representation to focus on for English Language Learners (ELL), especially within the realm of integrating culture to bolster English language learning, giving a richer and more effective learning experience. This is due to the fact that forming a concept, or building off of a pre-existing concept gives a context off of which the learner can associate prior and future knowledge in terms of vocabulary and phrases between Thai and English.

Photo by Heinrich Damm.Photo by Heinrich Damm. The Hand of this Buddha image represents giving instruction and intellectual discourse.

An analogy involves making analogous two distinct thought structures with like aspects in order to inform about, and make sense out of, the unknown. Analogies are used in solving problems, making decisions, explanations and verbal language (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). Holyoak, Gentner and Kokinov (n.d.) discuss symbolic ability as “the ability to pick out patterns, to identify recurrences of these patterns despite variation in the elements that compose them”, basically the basis of cognition; analogy is the “ability to think about relational patterns” (p. 2). Analogies are especially important while teaching Buddhism, because it strengthens understanding of a concept I’m trying to convey. Having students make their own analogies further helps the concept become clearer because it is personal and demonstrates to me correct understanding.   

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Images are visual representations of knowledge, which are arranged in order to better process information. Images help cast information in a more usable form than verbal descriptions and are closely linked with reasoning (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2010). Images are key to explaining an English word that students are not familiar with, I just draw a visual image on the whiteboard and they usually ‘get it’ within the first few tries (my artwork has gotten much better over time); they copy it into their notebooks, which further reinforces the vocabulary word.

Concepts, analogies and images have helped me as a learner become more cognizant of the processes that are at work. I’m now much more aware of how I learn and I recently started to make mental notes of which mental representations I rely on. While each can be present in a single learning experience, I find myself making connections with analogies and reinforcing concepts with images most of the time. Looking back at my professional learning environment, when a new lecturer enterd our faculty last year and he asked for my methods for teaching Thai students English, interestingly I answered with analogies and images (this was before I studied them). Understanding mental representations is important for educators because it takes advantage of the knowledge of how a person thinks. Teaching in a way that fosters and highlights mental representations is beneficial for learners, not only to learn the information, but to become more aware of how we think and, by implication, learn.

David Perkins’ book, Making Learning Whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education (2009), looks at the education system in the United States as being un-holistic and offers seven principles that focus on looking at the big picture when educating. As opposed to only offering on the specifics of a subject (for example, writing a topic sentence for a paragraph), Perkins claims that offering the big picture early on helps learners get excited to learn because it gives much-needed context. Instead of focusing on forming a topic sentence, an educator encouraging a holistic education approach will give students a choice of what to write about and focus on the content they provide; the topic sentence will come from contextualized information the learner cares about, thus making stronger connections with learner’s prior knowledge. Perkins terms this broad perspective “learning by wholes” (Perkins, 2009, p. 8). Perkins’ seven principles are: play the whole game, make the game worth playing, work on the hard parts, play out of town, uncover the hidden game, learn from the team (and other teams) and learn the game of learning.

The two principles that will have the biggest implications in my educational context are: learn from the team (and other teams) and learn the game of learning. I think learning the game of learning is the most important  principle because it puts all of the other principles in perspective; it is the framework under which “learning by wholes” can be effective and realized. If I teach a subject and students understand it, that’s good; if I teach a subject and students understand it and use it in daily life, that’s great; but if I teach a subject and students become aware of the most effective process for their own learning, that’s the best. They can use that realization not only to learn in other formal settings, but also in informal settings, and may even make others aware of how to learn the game of learning as well.

Learning from the team (and other teams) is undoubtedly an approach that I will focus on in the semester to come. To use an analogy, situated cognition is to “how effective thought and action depend on adopting and capitalizing on particular sociocultural setting” as situated learning is to “how meaningful learning requires an quthentic context of social endeavor” (Perkins, 2009 p. 173). He gives a few examples of soical learning: pair problem-solving, studio learning, Communities of Practice (CoP) and cross-age tutoring. Instead of setting up group work for particular assignments, I want to set up students into permanet groups where I evaluate their ongoing contributions to projects. I want to make the projects more meaningful and based on the “learning by wholes” approach and give the students more autonmony on their own educational journey. Overall, I want to take advantage of the extremely social culture of Thailand and have it work, not only to “learn by wholes”, but to hopefully learn the game of learning in a more efficient manner. Thai students are grouped into class sections during their entire school career, from grades K-20, making it an effective environment to focus on the social aspect of learning.

Social learning in the field, a trip to Pattaya, Thailand, with Year 3 students.

Social learning in the field; a trip to Pattaya, Thailand, with Year 3 students.

Personally, learning the game of learning is an ongoing pursuit, one which is continually enhanced by this degree program generally, and through cognitive science and “learning by wholes” specifically. I have focused on my own best practices of learning over the last six months so that I can enhance my students best practices; this also gives a stronger impetus, as I can readily apply what I learn to my educational context. Looking back at the last year, I realized that my colleagues and I had formed an informal Professional Learning Community (PLC). About PLCs (n.d.) describes a PLC as a community with a “focus on learning”, “a collaborative culture”, “ collective inquiry into best practice and current reality”, includes “learning by doing”, “a commitment to continuous learning” which is “results oriented”. Two or three of us talk about effective teaching strategies over lunch or coffee at the university, focusing on problem students or subjects that we could all learn to teach better with more of an exchange of ideas. I have a lot of new information to share the next time we meet!

Questions that remain focus on implementing the principles given by Perkins and how to give examples/explain concepts using mental representations in the most effective way. I did not study education for my undergraduate degree (Religious Studies instead) so most of the difficulties of the profession come in giving relevant examples and pushing students individually based on their abilities. Hopefully through focusing on the seven principles outlined by Perkins, more questions will be resolved through more experience doing/active learning on my part.

References

About PLCs. (n.d.). All Things PLC: All information, no commerce. Retrieved from

            http://www.allthingsplc.info/about/aboutPLC.php

Holyoak, K.J., Gentner, D. & Kokinov, B.N. (n.d.). Introduction: The place of analogy in

            Cognition. Retrieved from

           http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/gentner/papers/HolyoakGentnerKokinov01.pdf

Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making learning whole: How seven principles of teaching can

              transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2010). Cognitive Science. Retrieved from

              http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cognitive-science/

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