Last week, we examined the importance of critical thinking in the information age and the knowledge economy. We also looked at how children learn. This week, we will see how knowledge is structured and start examining cognitive strategies and ways to improve the effectiveness of learning.
Structure: What do we think about?
When we think, we think about something. Seems obvious, but it’s an important point many people miss. We think about some form of content, idea, desire, feeling, worry, and problem; we are thinking about something, not nothing. When you are doing that, the nature of the content is important and is related to some kind of internal or external structure.
When we are talking about how to help our children become effective thinkers, when they go to school and learn subjects like math, and language and basic sciences, what is it they are learning? The answer to that question is intriguing, and significant.
Knowledge has structure which reflects the natural world. When we talk about the structure of a discipline, we refer to the organisation of the knowledge as it is structured based on current scientific paradigms. In some cases, like the disciplines of grammar, rhetoric and logic, as well as a major part of mathematics, the structures have been maintained in rather solid form over many centuries. In the case of the experimental sciences, new discoveries, new instruments and methods have lead to the amplification or segmentation of fields of study with new forms of classification and order.
A few examples of organisation are:
• Mathematics has an underlying logical structure that goes from simple to complex, for example, the set of “real numbers” has several standard structures:
• an order: each number is either less or more than every other number.
• an algebraic structure: there are operations of multiplication and addition that make it into a field.
• a measure: intervals along the real line have a specific length,
• a metric: there is a notion of distance between points.
• a geometry: it is equipped with a metric and is flat.
• History has a chronological structure which permits comparison of events over time (diachronically or synchronically).
• Physical activities and motor skills possess a structure dictated by sequences and forms (topography) which are appropriate to them.
• The periodic table of elements in chemistry which is a marvelous example.
People become more proficient in a discipline (a subject) according to how they develop internal structures which are congruent with the natural structures of the disciplines. Your child codifies and stores large amounts of functional knowledge in his mind in a manner that should be coherent and congruent with the nature of the discipline. This accumulation and storage allows him to identify, classify, relate, predict and infer with greater precision and proficiency. This is what we infer when we say that someone has a head for mathematics or the sensitivity of a poet.
Another example is the structure of language.
Learning, thinking and content of information and knowledge
From the standpoint of a cognitive psychologist, there are solid reasons to favour teaching based in disciplines or in similar forms of structured organisation which permit your child to resolve practical problems involving knowledge of one or more disciplines. These problems can be presented in various forms in school through projects, integrated curricula or interdisciplinary activities although they usually are not.
The central insight into the how the teaching of thinking can be done is to know this: the content of thinking is nothing more nor less than a mode of thinking, a way of figuring something out, a way of understanding something through thought.
Examples of different content and how they influence thinking:
Historical content is a expression of historical thinking. When you learn, you learn not only the information involved but the form, how to think about history.
Biological content is a manifestation of biological thinking.
Algebraic content becomes a manifestation of algebraic thinking.
Thinking about events in the daily life is experiential thinking. You may think you are just thinking about your daily life, but you are also forming a way, a manner of viewing your reality.
Thinking about family has content: family members, interactions, family history, traditions, religion, etc., all of which, by their nature, form a mode of thinking (to this day my mother’s role in our family structures how I think about families in general).
Thinking always has content. So a major step in developing content is to facilitate effective learning.
Cognitive learning strategies
In learning, the first step is to do everything possible to improve acquisition and to make sure that what is learned is well-structured and available for later transfer and problem solving. To do this requires solid and reliable learning processes for entering new information and placing it in long-term memory in a way that it will be available for future use. To do that, we must go beyond simple memorisation and reach into areas of mental processing that insure solid structure. Cognitive processing strategies help us achieve this goal.
These strategies are the procedures for a general mastery and control of the functioning of mental activities while learning. They are critical in the acquisition and utilisation of specific information and interact closely with the content of learning. When learning is seen from a cognitive viewpoint, we emphasise the transformations which the child makes of the stimuli he receives from his environment.
Cognitive learning includes:
Processing (of the information)
Storage (of the information in the memory)
Recovery of the information and its use in specific and direct circumstances, for solving problems, in creativity and in affective reactions.
The concept of cognitive strategies stresses that your child not only learns the contents of knowledge in the curriculum but also learns about the process of learning and what he does to guide to his own learning. in other words, the child not only learns what he learns (content & structure), but also how he learned it. This learning of information then goes beyond content the student can subsequently transfer or generalize.
The process of cognitive learning I have described does not normally happen in schools.
Teachers rarely teach cognitive strategies: they often do not know what these strategies are. Some students learn strategies by themselves, over a long period of time. Most children do not learn good strategies: they learn how to memorise through rote repetition. This is where parents can play a major role in teaching their children to be effective learners and subsequently, critical thinkers.
Next week, we will discuss the first group of strategies, initial learning skills, that successfully allow new information (in a broad sense) to be assimilated into memory.
Sometimes we use the term ‘processing’ to refer to the efforts to learn new things. Learning is a process and what takes place in the working memory is a matter of practice - by which we mean the efforts we make to find, attend to and enter new information, impressions, ideas, etc., with the aim of storing them for a long time. Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist and educational explorer called this assimilation and accommodation.
It is clear that children learn not only through the association of their acts with the consequences but also through practice, observation and imitation of others, generation of images, plans, analogies, listening to a teacher or another person, reading, etc. They do all this often without practice, reward, or feedback from other people. It is also clear that various cognitive strategies facilitate such learning.
Next week, we will examine the initial learning skills:
2. Verbal elaboration strategies:
d.Grouping and Selective Combinations.