More on educating for cognitive/behavioral outcomes (not just content knowledge/skills)

Wednesday March 14, 2012

“Human history,” said H.G. Wells, is “a race between education and catastrophe.”
(as quoted in the Washington Post blog)

Education, I think we can agree if we take the time to phrase it, is about more than knowing things - it is also about the way in which we think, and the behaviors that we exhibit through our lives.

One curriculum that seems interesting is the Tools of the Mind program coming out of Denver, and now being implemented in DC. It builds on Vygotsky's ideas about mental tools and is thoroughly modern and so on, developing self-regulation in young children. I think it's great, but I can't help noticing that it seems similar in practice to Montessori methods. Montessori uses a concept called "normalization":

'Normalization arises from concentration and focus on activity which serves the child's developmental needs, and is characterized by the ability to concentrate as well as "spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others."'

Whatever you say the theory behind it is, I think it's great that educators are thinking about these kinds of learning goals. I see things reported of the type "study shows certain type of activity improves cognitive abilities of students" and I think "why aren't all the schools having their kids do that?" I've recently started messing around with Lumosity, which is trying to be a sort of cognitive training program for people of any age. It's pretty fun - and possibly really cool for the brains of the world.

I often think of better thinking as a goal of math education - it's not just for math, of course. Nearby math, people need good scientific thinking. I liked this article about making science education more scientific:
'We need a more scientifically literate populace to address the global challenges that humanity now faces and that only science can explain and possibly mitigate, such as global warming, as well as to make wise decisions, informed by scientific understanding, about issues such as genetic modification.
'The particular intervention we have tried addresses student beliefs by explicitly discussing, for each topic covered, why this topic is worth learning, how it operates in the real world, why it makes sense, and how it connects to things the student already knows.
'No matter what happens in the relatively brief period students spend in the classroom, there is not enough time to develop the long-term memory structures required for subject mastery.  To ensure that the necessary extended effort is made, and that it is productive, requires carefully designed homework assignments, grading policies, and feedback.
'As a practical  matter,  in a university environment with large classes the most effective way for students to get the feedback that will make their study time more productive and develop their metacognitive skills is through peer collaboration.'

So there's some thinking about how to get people to really think scientifically. Less far afield than you'd think, here's what Ira Glass relates in explaining what makes a good story:

'The story has to have more in it than “here’s what they do.” They need to make up theories about the interviewees, Alex says, putting them in categories, comparing them with other things, attaching them to bigger ideas. They need to always be thinking “this is like this,” “this means that,” “this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.” Especially “this little thing is an example of this bigger thing.”'

That kind of cognitive stance in the world, analyzing experiences and events around us, understanding things more deeply and making connections, is a desirable outcome of a good education.

There is a free curriculum available online that tries to address some of these goals, called Connections: Investigating Reality. I don't know if it's perfect, but it is at least a bold attempt to do something really cool with education. I like this list they have, a sort of collection of design principles for the course:

Learn-by-doing needs to be taken seriously, at least as a component of education, if not as the only component. There's a neat short TED talk about "studio schools" in the UK. Of course, not all activity is educational. And often the kind of activity that people do on their own is not what they need to do to learn new things. A sort-of-relevant quote from a piece about parent involvement that increases academic achievement:
'The kind of parental involvement matters, as well. “For example,” the PISA study noted, “on average, the score point difference in reading that is associated with parental involvement is largest when parents read a book with their child, when they talk about things they have done during the day, and when they tell stories to their children.” The score point difference is smallest when parental involvement takes the form of simply playing with their children.'

The above gives some education goals that are difficult to reduce to standardized test items. I don't think they are going to be particularly powerful without content knowledge and more basic skills (like adding, typing, reading, etc.) but neither will they necessarily develop if they are neglected. Let us educate well.

This post was originally hosted elsewhere.