Cognitive Science & Me!

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Graduate level courses offer an opportunity to look into the future, science, and best practices of education and reflect on how you teach, learn, and also plan for your future. Having almost completed MED 510, I’ve had an opportunity to deepen my knowledge of Cognitive Science and I wanted to take an opportunity to reflect on the plethora of information and assimilate it into my current position.

There were several concepts discussed including mental representations, dynamic systems, and practical principles in teaching that have changed how I think about the classroom experience for my students and also what I know about the learning experience as a whole.

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Mental representations are, to sum it up brashly, the mental tools we use to build knowledge. These tools break down into the following (Thagard, 2011):

  • Logic
  • Rules
  • Concepts
  • Analogies
  • Images

Logic, rules, and concepts have a depth of meaning as they relate to the cognitive sciences. In a few words, logic is making deductions from presented facts. Rules are conditions and actions or, in other words, if-thens.  Concepts are abstract and mental images which form our understanding of things.  Analogies are comparisons. Finally, images are the pictures and visuals in our minds. This collection of ideas is important in the classroom because they are the tools our students use to build their knowledge of things.

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I think all teachers inherently do most of these things as part of the teaching process. We use pictures to explain ideas. We explain facts and draw conclusions from those facts. We use rules into our classrooms and weave them into our content.  We compare ideas and draw analogies to relate the materials. And all of us build upon the existing concepts within our student’s understanding to bridge a new connection to fresh materials.

A new connection for this material for me was to understand the science behind the practices I have been using for years. Understanding the science behind why pictures help students to connect to the materials and the logic behind building concepts and using analogies was new. As a teacher, my instructional practices were learned through trial and error, peer suggestions, and sometimes just a guess. Establishing the science and understanding the impact these things can make is important. In the classroom, I have always used video and pictures to introduce or review ideas. I think I need to also expand that into teaching my students to take notes with pictures and use them more to cue their internal recall and learning. I also use analogies to relate materials, but the science proves students may learn better if I ask them to create their own analogies and relate materials to their own knowledge. Again, understanding the science can deeply impact the intent and effectiveness of teaching and learning in the classroom.

 

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Much emphasis was placed on the role of emotions in learning. Though any teacher who has been in the classroom when a student was having a “bad day” knows… emotions matter! Cognitive sciences and research into the way the brain works can help teachers understand the physiological reason why. I have long been a Quantum Learning Teacher, and this section of the course really went further into helping me understand why tools like brain breaks, state changes, and creating a safe learning environment are scientifically sound strategies.

 

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Another concept discussed within the realm of cognitive sciences was dynamic systems. By far, this concept was the hardest to assimilate, but the most interesting to think about. When I think about the idea of a dynamic system, I understand it to be like a plastic bag blowing in the wind. As cars drive by, as the wind changes, and as the bag encounters different objects in its path, it could end up in a million different places. Dynamic systems as they relate to understanding are all the forces acting on the bag. Our concepts and ideas are the bag. How new information (objects) change the ideas as the fly about are unknown. In the classroom, how I present materials to students may be identical, but their understanding, application, and absorption of the materials will all be different. Part of that depends on their complex dynamic system (Schoner, 2008). Offering students in the classroom different formats and ways to prove knowledge and understanding of the materials may be a better way to assess real comprehension and learning. Again, dynamic systems are still confusing to me, but also provide me with an interesting topic to read about as I go further into my personal learning journey.

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The bulk of the course discussed David Perkin’s principles of teaching which compared education to a game and included:

  • Playing the Whole Game- Going beyond the parts and learning the whole.
  • Make the Game Worth Playing- Make the materials relevant and useful to the student.
  • Work on the Hard Parts- Deliberately practice the things that are difficult.
  • Play Out of Town- Generalize knowledge and transfer it to other settings and subjects.
  • Uncover Hidden Meaning- Go deeper and see what is underneath.
  • Learn from the Team- Working collaboratively can deepen learning.
  • Learn the Whole Game- Learn what it means to learn.

Each principle addresses learning from the vantage point of improving teaching practices and also an individual’s understanding of the process of learning (Perkins, 2009). The surface conclusion from Perkins principles leaves you with a moment of “daaa”. Of course teachers should do these things! But when, as an individual, you look to see if your personal classroom or institution is really going beyond the sports analogy is where it gets interesting.

For me, on first glance, I felt that I did play the game that Perkins alludes to. After some reflection, I wonder if my interpretation of his principles is really effective for my students and is grounded in science. An example is the simple idea of playing the whole game. I know on many occasions I have caught myself asking a student “Are you paying attention? This is on the test.” For Perkins, this is unacceptable. As I teacher, I need to go further and really explain to my students why the material is important and how it can help them later. Teaching the small parts, expecting perfection with minimal practice, and then forgetting the material after the unit is over would leave me with a Perkins-Ticket for violating #1, 2, 3, and 5.  Within my teaching environment, I feel I could better embrace collaborative learning to allow my students to better learn from the team and develop social skills. I also think showing how materials are important and can be useful outside of the classroom more effectively will allow my students to make the game worth playing and also play the whole game. As the institution of education moves forward, I think that flipping the classroom may allow teachers to help students collaborate (learn from the team) and also work in the classroom with their teacher on the difficult ideas (work on the hard parts. I also hope things like project based learning and standards based assessments will let students demonstrate learning in a variety of ways and transfer that understanding to all content areas (play out of town). Understanding Perkin’s principles can make the classroom experience for both teachers and students more meaningful. Perkins suggests staring with a “junior version” of the game and going from there and “picking and choosing what’s most right for their own classroom, while paying particular attention to “playing the whole game” and “making the game worth playing” (Walker, 2009).

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All the concepts learned in EDU510 have an important role in improving the classroom experience for my students and also the instructional strategies I use every day. They also give me some ideas as to the future of education as we all look to how technology is revolutionizing delivery and assessments in education. Soon the entire education delivery model may be changed, but understanding the science behind emotions in the classroom, teaching and learning principles, dynamic systems, and mental representation will help us guide education initiatives that are grounded in cognitive science.

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Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching can Transform Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schoner, G. (2008). Dynamical systems approach to cognition. Cambridge Handbook of Computational Cognitive Modeling. 101-126. Retrieved from http://www.uiowa.edu/delta-center/research/dft/DFT_Publications/cambridge_chapter_schoner.pdf

Thagard, P. (2011). Cognitive science. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/cognitive-science

Walker, R. (2009). Education at bat: Seven principles for educators. Usable Knowledge. Retrieved from: http://www.uknow.gse.harvard.edu/teaching/TC326.html

 

All Images courtesy of Microsoft

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