In an article published on the Learning Counsel, Betsy Hill and Roger Stark write …
In the learning process, better teaching, better facilities and better technology are important, but those are external factors. More important are the internal capabilities and stumbling blocks that each student brings to the learning experience. Neuroscience shows us how to impact the efficiency and effectiveness of the learning process by improving each individual’s underlying mental processing – that is, by changing the experience of learning from the inside out.
Every learner has learning abilities, also known as cognitive abilities or cognitive skills. Cognitive skills include many different mental processes that are important in learning and thinking. Some of the most important include Attention Skills, Visual Processing Skills, Auditory Processing Skills, Sensory Integration Skills, Memory Skills, Executive Functions, Logic and Reasoning and Higher-Order Executive Functions. Science no longer accepts that intelligence and the capacity to learn are fixed. Rather, it continues to document the critical roles that cognitive training and experience play in developing intellectual ability. In fact, cognitive skills account for 50 percent of the variance in students’ academic performance. That means that half of the difference between one child’s academic performance and the child sitting next to them can be predicted by their cognitive skills. Not teachers, class size, curriculum nor technology.
To say it plainly, if we shine the spotlight on and put our resources towards developing students’ cognitive skills, we are applying more leverage to reach the goals of student achievement than if we shine the spotlight on and put our resources into things that affect outcomes to a lesser degree. We are not suggesting that other factors can be ignored, only that we can no longer afford to ignore students’ cognitive development.
Despite the fact that underlying cognitive skills are essential to all learning, these skills are not generally taught in schools. Unfortunately, schools tend to assume that every student brings the necessary cognitive skills to the learning process, or as much of those skills as they will ever have. The fact that the development of cognitive skills is not explicitly taught in schools, however, does not mean that it cannot be taught. For over half a century, techniques to develop basic cognitive skills have been known and used in various clinical therapies. Today, these techniques can be delivered via computer-based programs effectively and on a much broader scale, making the delivery of cognitive training programs viable in a classroom setting to all students.
The importance of developing students’ cognitive skills becomes even more important and urgent as the educational system itself is under pressure to evolve.
From Passive to Active to Proactive Learners
The traditional educational model where students are viewed as passive recipients of information is being superseded by more hands-on approaches, like problem-based learning, flipped classrooms and interactive simulations. These approaches leave more room for students to engage, question and explore their own ideas. Portfolios and being able to choose how to demonstrate what they know give students more voice in their learning and more opportunity to express their unique perspectives, insights and experiences.
But just because students have the opportunity to take a leadership role in their education journeys does not mean that they have the capacity to do so. And the skills that more engaging learning experiences are designed to develop may not emerge simply because external constraints are removed. While every student possesses inherent curiosity and a natural desire to explore and discover, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and other higher-level skills won’t simply happen because the system creates space for them. While higher-order thinking may have been stifled in traditional models that focused on memorization and measuring learning with standardized tests, it can emerge if students have the underlying cognitive skills that are required for higher-order thinking.