Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cognitive studies meet education

Summary of the lesson:

Until quite recently, cognitive science steered clear of education, while the sciences of education tended to ignore cognitive science. Things have changed over the last few years, and there is now quite a lot of interaction between the two fields. Between 2009 and 2010, and coherently with it’s editor in chief’s claim that “policy-making needs science” (Alberts, 2010), the prestigious journal Science has dedicated three special issues to science-informed education. Just before that, in 2007, were born the Mind, Brain, and Education conference, collaboration, and journal (Fischer, et al. 2007); during the 2000 decade, while the international organization OECD-CERI was achieving two programs on education and the brain, with relative publications (OECD, 2002, 2007), the ESRC and the Royal Society were producing reports on neuroeducation for the UK (ESRC-TLRP, 2000, 2008; Frith and Blakemore, 2005; Royal Society, 2010); and in the last two years, the EARLI association has birth to a special SIG on Neuroeducation and a new Journal on Neuroscience and education has seen the light. Education, cognitive science and neuroscience have thus become active arenas for the encounter of science and society.
In the literature cited above, the sciences that are meant to go at the encounter with education include neuroscience (with a certain rhetorical preeminence today), but more generally encompass all the sciences of learning as a cognitive, social, technologically-aided function: from “classical” cognitive science fields (psychology, AI, linguistics, etc.) to the biological underpinnings of cognitive functions, to more social sciences such as anthropology and social psychology, to studies in the domain of technology and education and in the domain of education itself.
The accent has been put in particular on neuroscience, as suggested by the spreading of  neuro-labels: neuroeducation, education and neuroscience, educational neuroscience. These labels remind us how trendy neuroscience is, in our days  - they are indeed in the good company of neuroeconomy, neuromarketing, neurolaw, and many other neuro-manias (Legrenzi and Umiltà, 2010).

A new field of research is then seeing the light, accompanied by the involvement of institutions and by a growing public interest – both on the side of educators and policy-makers. A body of knowledge is growing together with the multiplication of publications in specialized journals like Mind, Brain, and Education, Trends in Neuroscience and Education, Neuroeducation, but also Educational Reviewer or PNAS, Nature, Science … The field is variously named “neuroeducation”, “mind, brain, and education”, “educational neuroscience”, “new learning sciences”. These names point at the idea that the sciences of the mind, brain and learning can produce useful knowledge for education. It should not be forgotten that these are not the only sciences in town, and that a broader claim is at stake: that education (just as justice, agriculture, energy policies, medicine, and policy-making in general) needs science – a methodologically  rigorous process of evaluation and testing of claims in order to come to informed decisions.
The objectives of the encounter between education and the study of the mind, brain, and behavior  are not only theoretical, but practical, and consist in promoting:
-    a better understanding of learning processes, in formal or non formal learning settings
-    better learning, in the sense of the production of interventions that work.
In other terms, education is not a natural science: it is a form of design, hopefully grounded on relevant knowledge. We do not study education only for gaining a better understanding about how people  educate their youth, or about the evolution of social institutions; as in the case of medicine: research on education has a practical, applied aim:  try to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at. 
Once we have established that a certain encounter is (or many encounters are) happening within a certain perimeter, it is reasonable to ask: Why behavioral-brain sciences and education have good reasons to interact? Why now?

Several reasons can be pointed at: 
1. Learning is a pervasive cognitive function, especially developed in humans; people learn without formal instruction because learning is in many respects and in many cases a natural activity. E.g. Learning to walk, talk, recognize objects, interpret others' minds. But learning can also be difficult, effortful, and fail. This is especially the case when what has to be learnt are skills and knowledge our mind is not prepared to acquire: cultural knowledge (algebra, reading, contemporary dance). This is what education has been designed for.  The better we understand the human mind, the better we can design educational interventions that mesh with the functioning of the mind: its strengths ad limits. 
2. Additionally, in recent times, societal transformations have occurred that pose new problems to education. E.g. the information revolution has changed in many ways how we work, make research, communicate, and opens new opportunities for learning and education (new potential tools for education: computer simulations, e-learning). Some consider that the transformation of the industrial society and economy into the knowledge society requires new forms of education. But how? In the absence of past experience, tradition, and habits some ground is needed to take decisions about how to transform education and how to introduce “new technologies”. Moreover, even the ideas that shape the “old school” have never been tested scientifically.
3. We are not necessarily very good at using experience, observation and intuition to take good decisions in things that matter, such as education, or medical treatments. 
We thus need to find ways for fairly evaluating the outcomes of educational interventions in order to select interventions that work, on the basis of evidence and not of uneducated intuitions, experience, or tradition. We also need a theoretical framework for understanding evidence about what works, that is: why what works works; the study of the mind and brain can contribute to provide this framework.
4. Knowledge about the human mind has grown fast during the last 50 years, grossly after the so-called “cognitive revolution” (September 1956, MIT Symposium on Information Theory). The cognitive revolution consists in opening the black box of the human mind and looking inside rather than limiting scientific research to the observations of behaviors and environment. 

Claims that education should be reformed are not new: they are co-substantial to educational policies. Claims that education should be built on the grounds of scientific principles, and in particular on the grounds of knowledge about the human mind, are much more of a novelty, but are not as recent as the new learning sciences either. Psychologist such as W. James, E. Thorndike, J. Watson, J.B. Skinner have advocated the role of psychology in education all along the last century, and even before. 

Psychology is the science of the intellects, characters and behavior of animals including man. Human education is concerned with certain changes in the intellects, characters and behavior of men, its problems being roughly included under these four topics: Aims, materials, means and methods. Psychology contributes to a better understanding of the aims of education by defining them, making them clearer; by limiting them, showing us what can be done and what can not; and by suggesting new features that should be made parts of them (Thorndike 1910 p. 5)
Just as the science and art of agriculture depend upon chemistry and botany, so the art of education depends upon physiology and psychology.(Thorndike 1910 p. 6)

So what is new in the new learning sciences,  and what constitutes a heritage of older times?  
The first, big difference is certainly represented by the accumulation of knowledge  that has been taken place during the last decades, namely after the cognitive "revolution" of the 1950s. 
A new approach to the study of the mind has seen the light: scientific, objective, quantitative, and at the same time oriented towards the understanding of the inner mechanisms (functions, processes, biological) of the mind: how the mind transforms incoming information and produces behavior, which are the structures and rules that govern the workings of the mind, how are they implemented by the brain, how they have evolved and how they do develop. A variety of sciences contribute to this new understanding: biological sciences (neuroscience, genetics, evolutionary biology), psychological sciences, computational sciences, philosophy, linguistics, cognitively oriented cultural studies…
This approach then allows to relate stimuli and behaviors, and eventually educational strategies, and learning outcomes, to the functions of the mind, then to make predictions that are impossible in the absence of such a theoretical framework.

At the same time, accumulating knowledge about the workings of the mind is not enough for orienting practice, and in particular for establishing which are the best strategies for education. 
Problems of applicability and efficacy arise when trying to immediately apply theoretical knowledge to practical applications. Indeed, several risks and drawbacks threat the capacity of cognitive science to contribute to education. 
In order to fill the bridge between theory and practice, and to build robust, meaningful, applicable knowledge several steps have to be taken. The most important consists in the production of empirical evidence about what works in education. Empirical evidence is the ultimate bridge between theory and practice in education, as much as it is for medicine. Thence, the opportunity at looking at the evidence-based medicine approach, its strengths and weaknesses. 

The field of applied biomedical research has forged another approach that seems promising for orienting the workings of the new field of education and cognitive science: translational research, or "from bench to bedside, and from bedside to bench". 
It is possible for education and cognitive studies to take inspiration from these directions in order build a solid knowledge base upon which grounding decisions and practices. 

For revising the lesson: 

  • Pasquinelli, E. (2011). Knowledge and evidence based education; reasons, trends and contents. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5, 4, 186-195. 
  • Pasquinelli, E. (2013). Slippery slopes. Some considerations for favoring a good marriage between education and the science of the mind–brain–behavior, and forestalling the risks.  Trends in neuroscience and education, 2, 34, 111 -121.
  • Pasquinelli, E. (2013). Education Needs Science: Is Medicine a Suitable Source of Inspiration? In J.B. Laewen: Capacity Building and Development: Perspectives, Opportunities and Challenges. Nova Publishers.
Further readings: 
  • Readings: Cognitive studies meet education

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