On Human Cognition

After more than 30 years in education, I have become convinced that the systems we have created are grounded in an incorrect assumption of what constitutes human thinking. As educators, our goal is to increase and enhances students’ cognitive abilities. When they leave our classrooms, they should be able to observe more and more sophisticated aspects of the world, ask deeper questions, suggest better answers, and draw deeper conclusions. Yeah… looking at that last sentence, I’ve not really defined it, but let’s agree there is “something” that can be improved through what students experience in schools.

We can reasonably conclude that part of what is improved happens by changing the brain. This is a literal statement. When one has learned, there are measurable changes in how the brain functions. Those changes are localized within one’s brain, therefore they are changes in the individual. Following this observation, it it may be reasonable to conclude “education is about changing brains.”

It is true that changes within our students’ brains–changes that affect their perceptions and thinking and other abilities–are essential for them to have learned, it is also not sufficient for them to have learned.

Human cognition exists in three contexts. First, of course, the thinker’s brain. Second is the complex social and cultural world in which humans learn and perceive and understand. Third is the technological environment. These cannot be separated from cognition and they cannot be ignored in schooling.

In schools, teachers are told to focus on “academic standards” in their many forms and to focus grades (or summative assessments in today’s lingo) on students’ achievement of them. Some are comforted by that as they can achieve their goal of “just teaching math” (or whatever subject they were hired to teach). Others find it distressing as they no longer have the threat of grades to “motivate” compliance in class. Others are troubled that we seem to misunderstand learning.

“What we know” depends on what is in our brains, but it also depends on whom we are with and what they know and how well we can connect what we know. Further, it depends on the tools we have at our disposal. For schools to be the places our students and our society needs them to be, educators must abandon the view that schooling is only about improving individuals’ capacity to exercise academic knowledge. Knowledge is an emergent property, let’s design schools that reflect that reality.