Cognitive Skills are the mental processes our brains use to take in, organize, understand, and retrieve information. So much of what happens in our brains are processes we aren’t even aware of when they happen. But while they may happen non-consciously, they define our ability to learn.
The chart above helps illustrated how foundational cognitive skills and executive functions support the ability to learn to read, to learn math, to acquire social and emotional competence, as well as correlating with eventual life outcomes, such as the level of academic attainment, how much money someone will earn, their physical health and whether or not they become positive, contributing members of society.
Most education focuses on the skills in the second tier from the top of the chart and does not directly address the cognitive infrastructure for learning and the cognitive strengths and weaknesses learners bring to the learning process.
Cognitive infrastructure begins with the skills at the base of the chart, which we refer to as Foundational Cognitive Skills. These are the basic processes our brains use to take in, organize, store, retrieve and think about information from the outside world. That is where the learning process starts. So, if a students’ foundational cognitive skills are working efficiently and accurately, the learning process is off to a good start. If not, there will be gaps or confusion in the incoming information which can impede learning. Foundational cognitive skills include mental processes such as attention skills, visual and auditory processing, sequential processing, processing speed and others.
The second tier from the bottom represents a special set of cognitive skills referred to as Executive Functions. Most educators these days are familiar with the term and know that Executive Functions are important, especially as they relate to self-regulation. However, they don’t always know what these skills are. There are three Core Executive Functions – Working Memory, Inhibitory Control and Cognitive Flexibility. Executive Functions are the directive capacities of our minds – like the Conductor of an orchestra where all the other processes are the instruments. Like an orchestra, if our cognitive processes are not playing together, learning is confused and discordant.
The middle tier contains Higher Order Executive Functions. Skills at this level are the kinds of capabilities that educators have in mind when they refer 21st Century Skills – critical thinking and problem-solving, for example – and that many employers refer to as “soft skills.”
One of the important things this chart is meant to illustrate is that all of these three tiers of cognitive skills are truly the foundation for learning. It’s like the foundation of a house. If the foundation isn’t strong, it won’t support the house. If the learning foundation isn’t strong, it won’t support learning.
Another important consideration is that these skills are not just nice to have. They aren’t just about classroom behavior and having students who can focus long enough to listen to the teacher. These mental processes are essential to academics – to reading and math – as well as to social and emotional learning. Without strong underlying skills, students are likely to struggle.
Why Can’t We Teach Them?
If these skills are so important, why is it that more attention isn’t paid to them in schools? There are probably a couple of reasons for that. One is that, until recently, cognitive assessments that would enable teachers to understand individual student strengths and weaknesses have been not been practical in a classroom setting. Now that has changed with cognitive assessments like Mindprint.
Then what about teaching cognitive skills? Well, that turns out to be something can’t really be done, at least in the typical sense of teaching. Foundational cognitive skills happen in fractions of a second at a non-conscious level. Thus, they are not generally amenable to the kind of instruction that teachers are trained to deliver. For example, we can’t tell you how to make your mind pay attention or screen irrelevant information out. Nor can a teacher explain how to take more information in at a glance or hold more information in your mind or keep information in the right sequence. Since these skills aren’t things that teachers can instruct, most educators have had to simply assume that the children who come to their classrooms have the necessary level of cognitive development. Or they simply work around a student’s weaknesses as best they can.
Finally, it is important to point out that while cognitive skills are not generally amenable to direct instruction, they can be developed, through the right kind of cognitive training. Cognitive training is also commonly referred to as brain training. Effective cognitive training incorporates key neuroscience principles to be successful.
While we often connect learning with school, most adults need to learn new information and new skills, for work or to deal with life events.
Cognitive Skills — Learning and Teaching
The video below explains how developing cognitive skills helps with learning and teaching. An individual’s cognitive strengths and weakness comprise their learning capacity (or cognitive capacity). While the teacher’s teaching skills are important, the learner’s learning skills are also important. A learner’s ability to learn bears a direct relationship to the teacher’s ability to teach. With a strong cognitive foundation and sufficient learning capacity, teaching can be more effective.