A perennial challenge for teachers has been weaving multiple subjects into a coherent whole for students. ELA is ELA, Math is Math, and Science is Science. Right? The standards have been defined explicitly to demarcate expectations and mastery within independent domains. But those demarcations, as most teachers readily recognize, are arbitrary.
While some students are “good at math” and others are “good at reading,” the fact is that all students are good at something (even if it isn’t something the standards and curriculum recognize), and there are reasons they struggle with meeting the expectations of standardized curriculum.
Subjects like ELA, Math, Science, Financial Literacy and Social Emotional Competence are treated as independent strands in our education system. And yet, we know intuitively that these subjects are not unrelated. And we also know that the more connected we can make them, the more relevant and effective our instruction will be.
The metaphor of the blessed cloth – not as an icon of a specific religious tenet – but as a representation of the fabric that emerges from the multiple dimensions of learning – comes to mind.
The Fabric of Learning
As educators, when we endeavor to find the strands that weave themselves through our disciplines, we often struggle. In our best moments, we tend to identify cross-dimensional skills as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving. However, the problem with those skills is that they usually defy instruction at a conceptual level. They are highly dependent on domain knowledge. And yet, domain knowledge by itself is not sufficient.
If, instead, we conceptualize learning as the network of cognitive processes that are the foundation for how our brains take in, store, process, give meaning to, retrieve, and act on information, that may be a more apt characterization of the skills that transcend the disciplines as we traditionally teach them.
The Science of Learning
The science of learning and what we derive from the explosion of findings from neuroscience research tells us that the common underpinning of all learning happens in our student’s brains as a biological process. Cognitive psychology and clinical research tell us that there are essential processes or skills in our brains that determine how efficiently and accurately we process and think about what we take in from the outside world. Over the years, many theories of learning have been put forth. What is a learning theory? It is simply an attempt to explain how people learn, retain and apply knowledge and skills. Some of the most influential theories of learning include:
- Behaviorism is a theory of learning that focuses on observable behavior. According to this theory, learning occurs through the reinforcement of targeted behaviors and the punishment of other behaviors.
- Learning Process Theory comes from cognitive psychology. It focuses on mental processes such as attention, memory, visual and auditory processing and the integration of sensory input, as the basis for learning. Those mental processes are also called cognitive skills.
- Constructivism is the theory of learning that emphasizes the role of the learner and underscores the necessity of their active involvement to develop understanding and acquire skills. It emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning.
- Social learning theory emphasizes the role of social interactions in learning. It posits that learning occurs through observation, imitation and the modeling of behavior by others. It emphasizes the importance of feedback and the social context of learning.
The science of learning enables us to examine these various theories through the lens of neuroscience research and to take and apply the aspects that are supported by the evidence. Among the most important findings in the body of research is that cognitive skills predict a full 50 percent of the variance in academic outcomes, more than any other factor in the learning and teaching equation. That means, if you put two learners side by side, with the same schooling, same teachers, same classes and same socioeconomic background, of all the hundreds (or thousands) of factors that could change academic outcomes, a learner’s cognitive capacity, made up of the strengths and weaknesses of his cognitive skills, is as important as all the other factors combined. That is amazing – and even more amazing – the science of learning has given us the tools to increase that cognitive capacity in a relatively easy manner.
Think of learning as a giant carpet we ride, supported by an interweaving of cognitive functions. In one dimension are our memory skills – how easily we can recall information that we try to learn. Our memory for verbal information (information we read or hear – something language-based) may be stronger or weaker than our memory for visual information (an image, a chart, a graph, what someone was wearing, what color the sea shells were on the beach). Those differences matter.
Think of those two skills woven into a cloth. The strands that represent those two skills may be stronger or weaker per individual learner.
Cognitive processes are not subject-specific. They are not domain-specific. We all have cognitive strengths and cognitive weaknesses and those strengths and weaknesses influence everything we do. They make it harder or easier to learn to read. They make math computations a snap or a drag. They make critical thinking fluid or opaque, and they can positively affect attitude and behavior.
Think about all the other cognitive processes that are part of the fabric of learning – reasoning skills, executive functions, processing speed, and others. That woven cloth has, literally, dozens of strands – both independent and related – that weave themselves together into the complexity that is each student’s learning capacity.
Now, consider how we might strengthen a student’s “learning carpet,” or their learning capacity. If we want to strengthen the cloth, we can do two things. We can strengthen the individual strands, that is, their individual cognitive skills. But we can also strengthen the cloth by improving the weave – how intricately and durably the strands are woven together.
Some cognitive training programs focus narrowly on one or a few cognitive skills, assuming that working on one particular skill at a time will produce a great effect; however, modern brain science indicates that this is not the case. More effective programs now reflect the principle that the brain is a highly comprehensive integrated organ and that skills must not only be strong but also work together. Recent research provides greater support for the brain as a comprehensive integrated system that must be trained in an integrated way.
All students (and their teachers, for that matter) have cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Developing their cognitive capacity in a comprehensive and integrated manner is a vital step in helping students become their best selves. This is what cognitive assessment and comprehensive integrated training allows us to do for our students. We can identify the strengths or weaknesses within a student’s learning process. We can reinforce the proverbial cloth by strengthening the individual threads and by modifying our weaving techniques to strengthen the ability – and the interest – of the learner.
And when we do this, learners will recognize the connections from all the learning experiences we have provided them. Subjects like ELA, Math, Science, Financial Literacy and Social Emotional Competence will no longer be seen as islands floating willy nilly through our curriculum. Cognitive skills become the common threads across subjects, and strong connections will make our instruction much more relevant and effective.
About the authors
Betsy Hill is President of BrainWare Learning Company, a company that builds learning capacity through the practical application of neuroscience. She is an experienced educator and has studied the connection between neuroscience and education with Dr. Patricia Wolfe (author of Brain Matters) and other experts. She is a former chair of the board of trustees at Chicago State University and teaches strategic thinking in the MBA program at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management where she received a Contribution to Learning Excellence Award. She received a Nepris Trailblazer Award for sharing her knowledge, skills and passion for the neuroscience of learning in classrooms around the country. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching and an MBA from Northwestern University. Betsy is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?”
Roger Stark is Co-founder and CEO of the BrainWare Learning Company. Over the past decade, he championed efforts to bring the science of learning, comprehensive cognitive literacy skills training and cognitive assessment, within reach of every person, and it all started with one very basic question: What do we know about the brain? From that initial question, Roger Stark pioneered the effort to build an effective and affordable cognitive literacy skills training tool, based on over 50 years of trial and error through clinical collaboration. He also led the team that developed BrainWare SAFARI, which has become the most researched comprehensive, integrated cognitive literacy training tool delivered online anywhere in the world. For more, follow BrainWare Learning on Twitter @BrainWareSafari. Roger is co-author of the new book, “Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?”