Human Cognition and Implications for the Constructivist Classroom

In light of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), I thought I would write about the brain!

With the development and increased usage of the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), I find myself reading more and more findings regarding human cognition and neuroscience. It has also become a major interest of mine. That being said, while analyzing study findings, I find myself in a state of excitement, discovery, and uncertainty. The more I learn about human cognition, the more I question current best practices, educational trends, teaching strategies and approaches, etc.

In the context of direct instructional guidance as it relates to human cognition, learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) posit:

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective. (p. 77)

Based on my readings and knowledge regarding human cognition (which is admittedly limited), I find that these cognitive researchers often sound very definitive when talking about learning. However, for me, questions continually abound regarding their claims or evidence. For instance, can Kirschner et al. safely conclude that absolutely no learning has occurred if nothing has changed in long-term memory? Again, for me, that sounds very definitive.

Kirschner et al. further posit that controlled experiments almost always demonstrate that when students are dealing with novel information, they should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it (sounds somewhat like lots of hand-holding). If they are not, students may experience an excessive cognitive load that is detrimental to learning.

As an avid and vocal proponent of project-based learning, I always get a little nervous while reading and analyzing cognitive studies that decry constructivism or constructivist teaching approaches. I’m not denying the results of these cognition studies or the plethora of literature reviews concerning human cognition that suggest that direct instructional approaches are more effective and more efficient.

However, with well-designed and well-planned project-based learning, students are provided with a real-world problem and (often) a pathway or guidelines to follow in order to solve the problem (therefore, possibly alleviating the “problem-solving search” that has been shown to deplete working memory). Well-designed PBL is highly structured and organized by skilled teachers. Students are guided through the journey as they endeavor to meet project deadlines, secure resources for their projects, practice and prepare for presentations in front of authentic audiences, and receive and reflect on critical feedback. When done well, and when students are truly engaged in these endeavors, though it may not be considered a “direct instructional approach” or “direct instructional guidance,” PBL can have profound learning impacts on students, right? I’ve seen it happen. Or, is what I’ve seen simply increased levels of engagement and excitement regarding learning activities? Is what I’ve seen simply students engaging in meaningless activities that look good, but will not transfer to long-term memory alterations? Cognitive studies often rock educational foundations. As such, these are turbulent times for me as I grapple with this information.

Human Cognition and the Case for Early Childhood Education.

Also, as we become more informed about human cognition, I can’t help but think about its implications for early childhood education. Based on what I’ve read and what researchers have found, a substantial amount of information stored in long-term memory is essential for continued and future successful learning. If this is the case, I don’t see why early-childhood education is not mandated (I’m sure most people will resort to the argument that there’s not enough funding for it). I live/work in Illinois. Students don’t have to go to school until they’re 6-7 years old (first grade). In underserved communities, it’s highly likely that if students are not attending school during those foundational years, they are not building experiences necessary to form and fill long-term memory. By the time some students come to us at 5 or 6 or 7 year olds, they may have missed a copious amount of opportunities to build their long-term memory.


What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to follow/share/leave a comment!

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