We recently coined the term “cognitive literacy” to describe our approach to applying neuroscience to educational practice. This approach focuses on the role of cognitive skills in enabling students to achieve literacy in reading and math.
Cognitive Literacy starts with understanding that cognitive skills are the foundation for learning. Foundational cognitive skills, such as attention, visual and auditory processing, and memory – as well as executive functions, including working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility – are necessary for academic performance and pretty much everything else we do in life. If you are not comfortably conversant with the idea of cognitive skills, we recommend you start here.
While many educators consider the basics of reading to be decoding and fluency and comprehension, there are even more fundamental cognitive processes that support those skills. There is, in fact, no decoding part of our brains. We need multiple cognitive processes working efficiently, accurately and in a coordinated way, in order to decode words.
Educators are becoming more aware of executive functions and their role in behavior, but they are essential for academic achievement as well. For example, cognitive flexibility helps us switch smoothly back and forth between sounding words out and recognizing sight words. Working memory is necessary for holding information in our minds while we think about it and give it meaning. That is what is required for comprehension.
The story is similar in math, where visual-spatial skills, working memory and abstract reasoning play roles at different levels of the domain.
When students struggle with learning, the problem is often not a matter of curriculum and instruction. On this front, educators often get a “bad rap.” Of course, sometimes instructional practice and teacher effectiveness are at fault, but learner variability – the fact that we all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses – means that just about every learner needs support in one or more areas of cognitive processing.
Thus, cognitive literacy means assuring that students have the underlying cognitive capacity for learning. And this is the deeper and more urgent implication of cognitive literacy in our world today. Our children and grandchildren cannot hope to memorize how to do what they will need to do in their future roles and careers. They will have to learn what to do – and then learn again what to do – as circumstances and the demands of the world change. Every student should understand his or her cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Every student should have a personalized toolkit of strategies, practices and supports. Every child should have an opportunity to develop and strengthen their cognitive skills to their potential.
Cognitive literacy means that a student can learn, that they have the skills in attention, memory, perceptual processing, core and higher-order executive functions – an efficiently functioning brain, if you will – to see them through the repeated demands for learning that they will experience in their lives.
This is not to say that the more mature members of our audience don’t need these, but for our children/students, and their children/students, it will be a matter of survival.
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