A New Way of Teaching
This isn’t a blog post on ways to make your teaching for engaging or introducing personalized learning into your classroom. Those are ways to make the way we teach now better. This is 100% an entirely new way of teaching. Because it is new, it is going to feel scary. I just ask that you bear with me until the end and spend some time thinking about what I share. You don’t have to make any changes to your classroom. You aren’t teaching wrong. This is just something to think about.
If you are like me, you enjoy reading books on learning and education - or at least reading blogs about books. Well, recently I read (listened to) a book by Professor Roger Schank called Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools. The premise of his book, as you might have guessed, was that our schools aren’t doing a very good job of educating students. In fact, he believes that we aren’t even teaching them the right stuff.
This misalignment of schools is older than the United States. Schools were initially set up to prepare students for college. Colleges were filled with academics who were super excited about their fields and wanted to work with other scholars. As a result, colleges required students to take classes that would prepare them to be an academic. How else do you explain teaching Latin to pioneers living on the prairies in the 1800s? I would also challenge you to remember the last time you had to graph a quadratic equation in your adult life.
So, if schools are wasting time teaching Latin and algebra, what should they be teaching?
(One quick point here, Professor Schank was a college professor, and his book deals mostly with high schools. Elementary schools are definitely correct in teaching reading, writing, and math. However, they too could benefit from some of Schank’s ideas.)
Robert Shank believes schools should be teaching students cognitive processes instead of specific content. Cognitive processes are the ways that we think about and interact with the world using our minds. For all of human history, the better an individual was at the cognitive process, the better that individual survived. As you will see, cognitive processes determine what kind of lives we lead even today.
Schank breaks the cognitive processes into three groups: conscious processes, analytic processes, and social processes. Conscious processes are those processes that help us understand life. They involve trial and error as we learn from our experiences.
The first type of conscious processes is prediction. Humans need to be good at predicting what will happen next to avoid negative consequences and receive rewards. For example, a person living five thousand years ago would need to predict what would happen if he walked past a group of saber-tooth cats without a weapon. In this case, a poor prediction would mean death.
The second type of conscious processes is modeling. Modeling is creating a map of how to do something new. We can create physical models or drawings, but we also make models in our heads. Young children learn how to use the bathroom by creating models. Older children learn how to play sports using different models.
The third type of conscious processes is experimentation. Humans try something new to learn what will happen. When toddlers throw a spoon on the ground at dinner time, they are experimenting. When they do it over and over again, they are repeating their experiment. Experimenting helps up be better at predicting because we have more information to use for our predictions.
The last type of conscious processes is evaluation. We must notice and describe what we are seeing or experiencing to make decisions about what to do next. For example, a girl playing soccer for the first time will make an evaluation of the sport. She may decide she loves it because she enjoys spending time with her friends who play soccer. She may decide she hates it because it involves too much running. Her evaluation of the sport determines what she will do next.
As you can see, we all do the conscious processes, but we don’t all do them well. A teenager who speeds down a dark road at night doesn’t have enough information or experience to make a good prediction, so he makes a dangerous choice. Similarly, without a good model, students don’t know how to get good grades in school. Like everything, getting good at the conscious processes takes practice.
Analytic processes are different from conscious processes because they require increased purposeful thinking. The first analytic process is diagnosis. Diagnosis is looking at a problem and determining what caused it. Diagnosis happens across all disciplines. Doctors diagnose illnesses, mechanics diagnose car problems, and moms diagnose child behavior. In each of these cases, the expert is comparing what they see, hear, smell, taste, or feel what they know about the subject. Using this information, they can diagnose the problem.
The second type of analytical process is planning. Planning requires identifying the steps necessary to complete an action. Most of the time, we modify old plans to create new plans. For example, when we make a plan to go to school, we might take a different route because of road construction. We modified our old plan for going to school. Creating an entirely new plan is difficult. For example, it took NASA nearly ten years to get Neil Armstrong to the moon. The next moon landing took place just four months later.
The third type of analytical process is causation or learning what caused an outcome. Experts in a field are experts in causation. They know why your car won’t start because they know all the reasons a car doesn’t start. A meteorologist knows when it will rain because she knows the causes of rain.
The fourth type of analytical process is judgment. Judgment is what you think about the quality of a product or event. For example, a music producer has better judgement about what song will be a hit than a lawyer. On the other hand, a lawyer has better judgement about who will win a case than a music producer. Someone with strong judgment abilities in a given field will be able to provide evidence to support their judgments. For example, a piece of writing is good because it has an interesting hook, clear topic sentences, and no spelling mistakes.
The last type of cognitive processes is social processes. Social processes determine how well we can work with others to achieve a goal. The first social process is influence. Influence is how we get along with others. Often we are not consciously aware of our influence. We just act, we don’t think about how our actions affect the people around us. By thinking about how we appear to others, we can improve our influence by making changes to our actions.
The second type of social process is teamwork. Teamwork is how well we can delegate jobs, compromise, and work with others. Teamwork is essential in most jobs because one person cannot do everything. In a manufacturing plant, people make different parts of the product, people sell the product, people manage the budget, and people manage the relationships between the people working the plant. Without strong teamwork skills, the manufacturing plant wouldn’t be able to produce and sell products.
The third type of social process is negotiation. Negotiation happens in business meetings and at home. When two people want different things, they must negotiate to find a solution that is acceptable to both parties.
The fourth type of social process is describing. When problems arise, we have to be able to describe the issue to others, so the problem can be fixed. When the dishwasher breaks, the problem must be described to the repairman, so he can diagnose the problem. When Sally isn’t talking to Joe, she must describe the issue, so he knows why she is angry.
What if we used these 12 cognitive processes to drive our instruction instead of academic subjects? If Luke loves cars, let him study car repair or car manufacturing through the lens of the cognitive processes. Nadia can learn about writing for television using the same cognitive processes. Each student would learn details specific to the topic they are studying but would be employing the same skills. Plus, they would both be enthusiastically engaged with their learning. As Roger Schank wrote, “Learning occurs when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach.”
Thanks for making it this far with me. You probably have a lot to think about. I know I do. Over the next months, I will be thinking about ways to incorporate the cognitive processes into your classroom, and I will be sharing my ideas with you!