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A response to David Didau: Constructivism and Social Cognition

This BLOG is in response to David Didau.  I sometimes disagree with David, and I hasten to add agree as well. His constant pedagogic poking and prodding certainly makes you think and enriches the Teaching and Learning conversation.

That said, I think this article is problematic. In the BTL conversation after the article David asked me to evidence my responses. Rather than engage in a tit for tat rebuttal, I will outline a different view of cognition based on our mutual acceptance that thinking about the brain in terms of a dualist approach is helpful. So this is an initial bringing together of stuff I know rather than a direct response or rebuttal. It’s a start of something, or other.

My guess is that there is no one single answer rather a refining of positions. It seems to me that a rather peculiar Teaching and Learning discourse has emerged, that equates Teaching and Learning with instruction and memorization. The argument seems to me to go along the lines of, its traditional therefore it’s natural. Well I don’t agree, I am inclined to agree with Matthew Lieberman when he says:

Who we are as humans has a lot to do with what happens between our ears. What happens between our ears has a lot to do with the social world we traverse, engage, and react to.

Teaching and Learning is neither an Art or a Science, it is a social function. And can only be understood in those terms.

Lieberman offers a dualist take on cognition, System X and System C.  One system represents non-reflective social cognition and another reflective social cognition. One is quick and able to multitask, the other slower and single tasking. In simple terms (and I’m being creative here) one is reason and the other is reaction. There maybe more. The simple fact is that cognitive scientists are beginning to map the brain in much more detail and it’s not straight forward.

The danger here is that this is simply a socially constructed narrative that fits in with our conception of the world. The human brain evolving with a cognition that initially responds to the environment; needing to be fast reacting to external stimuli in order to survive. The brain is flooded with stimuli; smell, light, sound, feeling, pain etc etc. The other evolved later to add rationale to that older part of the brain. The latter moderating the former as we evolved  from primitive ape like creature to, well more advanced ape like creature (hopefully).

Whilst I can wonder about the efficacy of the specifics, for me, one aspect of the science is quite clear the brain is adapted to the natural world and we make sense of that, which equates to social norms. It does not easily manage Math, or other abstract concepts. Of course most of us know this but if you want a field of study where this view is offered then here it is:

Behavioral research has shown that performance on conditional reasoning tasks is substantially improved if the conditional rules are formulated from real social norms rather than from abstract content (Cheng & Holyoak 1985) quoted in Lieberman.

Let me make this clear this is a theoretical position based on evidence. If you want  cognitive evidence to back up Constructivist teaching methods then there is lots of it. Learning should match or emulate real world experiences because that is how the cognition works.

Learning Math is not so much hard it’s just not what the brain was designed for. I wonder whether it is appropriate to consider learning in terms of hardness, rather it is more appropriate to understand that some types of learning is easier on cognition than others. That is not to suggest that Teaching and Learning should be about what the brain does, but rather about what the brain needs to do to thrive in a social environment. And the findings are clear that Learning is improved by leveraging pre -existing socio cultural schemas where possible:

Neuroimaging studies investigating domain specific reasoning effects have found a lateral frontoparietal network that is more active during conditional social reasoning than during conditional abstract reasoning (Canessa et al. 2005, Fiddick et al. 2005) – quoted in Lieberman

So it seems clear that different parts of the brain are managing abstract and more real world reasoning. I wonder whether we have “working memory” as such, I think that is a socially constructed concept based upon computer science. In fact different parts of the brain are constructing networks for different types of activity. I wonder if there is a central memory function; there certainly isn’t central memory storage. And I wonder at the role of the executive functions, much if not most, cognition is not managed consciously and rationally.

For example neuro imaging has shown that:

….cooperation and competition, activate different parts of the brain (Mitchell et al, 2005), such that cooperation may be associated with seeing the other players as more similar to oneself. Cooperation has long been studied as a technique for overcoming inter-group differences and promoting a sense of shared identity (Sherif et al. 1961) quoted in Lieberman.

Again this chimes with Constructivist theory that group work and role play are not simply random activities but are specific aspects of cognition. You could conjecture that the evolving brain first understood itself in the world and understands others others as an interpretation of self. Strengthening the sense of self in relation to others would help working in a group. We can improve group work and in fact improving group work may not even involve a group; rather the group could be seen as an extension of self. Surely this is the purpose of education to improve the self in relation to wider society.

The question is whether this is learning, it’s not memorisation, as such, albeit memory is implicit to all cognition  and it may not involve much instruction but teaching individual students how to work in groups could be very structured and based on cognitive science.

In other words even the most superficial look at cognition casts doubt on the work of Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke and the approach of DT Willingham, or at least how those approaches have been adopted by traditionalist teaching methods.

In another field, that of ecological cognition, other researchers have re-enforced the findings. Describing the work of D’Andrade, Hutchins identified the role of culturally inherited mental models in the abilities of individuals to reason correctly. D’Andrade (1989) considered a number of logical conundrums consisting of a premise in the form of an ‘if-then’ statement followed by an observation and a set of potential conclusions.

For example, ‘‘If x is true then y is true’’ and then an outcome is identified, ‘‘y is not true’’. The subject is then asked what can be inferred about x from the observation that y is not true. The choices are; ‘‘x is true’’, which is an invalid response, ‘‘we can’t know if x is true or not’’, which is also invalid and finally “x is true’’, which is the correct response. Only a small minority of subjects came to the correct conclusion.

Contrast this with a similar proposition, this time, rather than using abstract semantic symbols such as “x” and “y”, the proposition underpinned with a culturally coherent material object, a garnet. The proposition therefore is that, ‘‘if this is a garnet, then it is a semi-precious stone’’ along with the observation, ‘‘this is not a semi-precious stone’’. Most subjects correctly rejected ‘‘this is a garnet.’’, which is an invalid conclusion. As well as ‘‘we can’t know if this is a garnet or not’’, also an invalid conclusion. Opting for ‘‘this is not a garnet’’, which is the correct response.

In effect, the two problems are identical. From D’Andrade’s perspective, the significant difference in the premise is the cultural coherence in the latter as opposed to the former.  That is, unless “x” and “y” are associated with known concepts, our cognition has nothing in particular to say about the relationship between “x” and “y”.

Hutchins (2005) suggests that conceptual models are supported and reinforced by the behaviour and thinking of others. Existing within a network of other conceptual models they mutually constrain one another leading to a more conservative but also stabilising of cultural beliefs over time providing resources for individual and group reasoning.

He illustrates this with the example of a queue. People stood in a line only become a queue when there associated with sequential order. Army personnel stand in line but it is not a queue This cultural practice creates a spatial memory for the order of arrival of clients. The participants use their own bodies and the locations of their bodies in space to encode order relations. The gestalt principle of linearity makes the line configuration perceptually salient.

Our perceptual systems have a natural bias to find line-like structure. But seeing a line is not sufficient to make a queue. Not all lines are queues. Soldiers standing at attention in formation form a line, but not a queue. In order to see a line as a queue, one must project conceptual structure onto the line. The conceptual structure is the notion of sequential order. This is then re-enforced by a “making sense” of the particular cultural context. Is the queue outside a shop or some other service offering? Has the individual experiencing a queue had other cultural experience of concepts related to queues such as “first come, first served”?

Once established the concept of the queue can be associated with other conceptual structures, who is first in line? Who is last? Who is next? And so on. The need to create easily accessible cultural conceptual anchors for a pedagogic constructs; we all see, hear and interact meaningfully with physical tools and accept embodied cognition of experiencing ideas.

It seems to me that social cognition is implicit to thinking well. Cognition is complex and different areas of the brain perform different functions. The difficulty of learning is not because of limited working memory but because the brain did not evolve to do Math and does not manage it particularly well. The “hardness” of learning, as David describes it, should be considered in the context of cognition and not the relative ability of an individual to perform abstract tasks. I think David runs into difficulty because what he describes as working memory is actually an implicit system within the brain.

The brain even when considering rationale is still processing many different other stimuli. I wonder whether Cognitive Load and Memorisation as conceptual representations of cognition are that helpful? In fact I think they aren’t. The brain is an embodied, holistic system, of course memory is limited, processing huge chunks of information is not what it does, however that does not equate to constructs such as “load” and “overload” it simply doesn’t seem helpful to me.

Rather we should consider cognition as a social function with knowledge such as Math providing social tools to engage in specific conversations and representations of aspects of the social world. That in my view is a much more helpful way of looking at cognition when viewed in terms of Teaching and Learning.

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4 thoughts on “A response to David Didau: Constructivism and Social Cognition

  1. Baddeley & Hitch theoretical model of working memory one of few psychological functions for which biological evidence has been found. Several sites for their sensory buffers (tend to be specific to different sensory modalities) and frontal areas undertake central executive function.

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