Where Do You Stand?

One could argue that the primary function of the public schools is the cognitive development of the children who attend. It seems reasonable that those who are in charge of said cognitive development would have a solid understanding of what the concept means and of the current research in the field. As I observe current practice in the K-12 schools it is apparent that those in charge of instruction either don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of cognitive development theory or they are willfully ignoring what is known about how children learn.

Several years ago I searched for areas of agreement in the work of brain researchers and other cognitive scientists to see if there is a body of agreed-upon knowledge in the field. The search resulted in a list of eight promising candidates for the basic theorems of learning. The listing was reported out at the Learning and the Brain Conference at Harvard and MIT in May of 1999 and is included here for your consideration and comment. It is not assumed that the list is all-inclusive. It may contain redundancies and may contain items all researchers would not agree upon. It is intended as a starting point in an effort to limit energy-wasting arguments over particular teaching techniques, instructional strategies and curriculum designs. All this said, here are the eight candidates:

At birth, our brain is made up of tens of millions of basic neural networks, each programmed through natural selection to process a specific element of the environment.

Stage Development
The growing brain is especially well equipped for particular kinds of learning at certain stages of development.

Mental Models
Infants form mental models about how the world works and, as they receive new information from the environment, they modify their theories to better explain to themselves what they are hearing, seeing, and feeling.

Emotion plays a central role in cognition both by driving attention and by aiding in memory storage. High challenge and personal meaning enhance learning, threat inhibits learning.

Handling Crisis vs. Slow Developing Problems
The brain is better at sizing up and responding to high contrast, sudden changes than in monitoring slowly evolving, subtle changes.

Brain Plasticity and the Role of Experience
Brains are self-organizing, making connections and allocating space in response to each individual’s experience and perceptions. They are capable of growth throughout life. Learning is a reflective activity that allows us to draw upon past experiences to create meaning, formulate deeper understanding, and shape our futures. Knowing depends on engagement in practice.

The Social Nature of Learning
Learning is essentially a social, collaborative, problem-solving activity.

Adequate Time
Adequate time is needed for assimilation and integration of new knowledge.

Fifteen years after the list was developed it remains pretty much intact. How is it then, that virtually everything we can agree on about cognitive development is systematically ignored by the federal and state mandates that expect all children to learn the same things at the same rate over the course of their public school experience? In any other field it would be called malpractice or outright abuse. And that is what it is in the field of education. At a minimum it is malpractice and for many children it is abuse.

Why do we stand for it? Aren’t we guilty of malpractice or abuse as we sit on the sidelines as parents or carry out the abusive activities as teachers, principals, and superintendents?

When are you going to stand up and say, NO MORE?

13 comments to Where Do You Stand?

  • Stephen Stollmack

    The manager and the teacher: one regards their job as using knowledge of teaching methods and experience dealing with the emotional beings she/he teaches as primary; the other regards their job as one of managing a process and the people and materials involved in the process so that it meets certain goals. One thing they have in common is that neither one is totally comfortable as to the degree of success with how they perform and the degree to which they will be fairly evaluated. The teacher sees his/her success in terms of the degree to which she/he have learned as well as the self confidence and knowledge the student seems to have gained in a year. The manager needs metrics because the science of management of humans has long ago (at least to the days of Frederick Taylor) been removed from personal judgement of how well the worker dealt with obstacles and produced good products. In fact, the first principle of good management is to avoid making personal relations with any of those he/she has to manage. We are not dealing with a “social, collaborative, problem-solving activity.” In our society, workers are regarded the same as slaves except they are paid whatever the market demands they be paid.

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