Rodin - The Thinker - cognition

#CertStudy, Day 2: Cognition Overview

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

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Cognitive perspectives on learning have, historically, begun purely in the mind and moved outward, so to speak. Cognitive science grew up with computer science, and ways of thinking/theorizing about cognition and computing have been surprisingly (and surprisingly satisfyingly) intertwined.

So in many of the early papers in cognitive science, the brain is regarded purely as a symbol (not signal) processing system, and there’s lots of careful, sophisticated work on schemas, scripts, etc. that you could mistake for an intro to programming textbook if you didn’t look to closely. It’s pretty fun reading pseudocode for how to handle, like, going to cocktail parties and whatnot.

As the science of complex systems came into its own, it began to have an impact on thinking about thinking. Cognitive scientists increasingly began to view the mind as a complex system. Now, rather than a really powerful CPU and detailed source code, the mind becomes a collection of autonomous agents competing for control (think “hungry” vs. “focusing.”) If you want a highly accessible if occasionally infuriating account, try Minsky’s Society of Mind. Just be warned that he’s as dogmatically materialist at Richard Dawkins.

From here it gets more complicated to tell even a greatly oversimplified version of the (already simplified) version I’ve learned. One strand of thinking pushes back on the idea that knowledge is primarily “out there” and learning is a question of figuring out effective ways of shoving it “in here” in ways that stick. We could do worse than to call this the cognitivist tradition (confusing I know). If you’ve read Freire just go ahead and think of it as pairing well with what he calls the “banking model” of education.

We can contrast this view with the constructivist model, which says knowledge is built by the learner rather than deposited by the teacher. This is Piaget‘s big idea. “Built on what?” you ask. On what the learner already knows. So when you encounter something you want to understand, you either assimilate it—fit it into your existing knowledge—or accommodate your existing knowledge to the new information.

Constructionism (Seymour Papert, for a time a Sherry Turkle collaborator) builds on constructivism (zing) by externalizing this vision somewhat. Papert suggests that we build new knowledge in our minds as we build/tinker with our own creations (“object” to think with, though the object can also be a computer program or media or whatever). This gives rise to all kinds of exciting ideas about using computers for learning. Papert thought that computers could be a “mathland” where students learn math the same way French kids learn French by living in France. I happen to think he’s right on the money, about math as well as other disciplines.

Other ways of moving thinking about thinking (at least partially) outside of our heads:

Situated cognition is all about how the context contributes to thinking/learning. Recall yesterday’s discussion of Jean Lave’s work on communities of practice, etc. There’s also a very famous and fun article about doing math in the grocery store.

Distributed cognition is the notion that the environment doesn’t just shape/interpret our thinking/learning, it can in some ways instantiate it. The paradigm-shifting paper here is about how the flight crew of an ’80s(?) -era airplane—and indeed the plane itself—comprise a sort of cognitive system. It’s a fun read (or at least skim). If you’ve read one of those tiresome thinkpieces about how no one remember phone numbers or state capitals or characters in Dickens novels or whatever because of evil smartphones, the author was pointing out that now our brains form a cognitive system with the entirety of the Internet.

Embodied or grounded cognition is the view that our bodies (i.e., more than just our brains) are involved in cognition in important ways. The theory goes that our minds store these multimodal representations/simulations of physical sensations associated with particular experiences. When we re-engaged with such a process, we access, are guided by, and refine the previous representation. In other words, embodied cognition is, among other things, the cognitive theory behind that expression “just like riding a bike.”

How do these ideas inform the work of somebody interested in religious education? Well, there’s lots of potential examples. Like the fact that those of us who believe worship experiences are an important part of forming faith are more likely to want to those experiences to be richly multimodal—involve moving our bodies, engaging many senses, interacting with other people, and expressing our own powerful ideas in addition to receiving them from others.

As I said yesterday, I think I’m heading toward a dissertation about Digital Storytelling in religious education settings. This is an inherently constructivist/constructionist position: I believe people will learn/practice/claim their faith more significantly if they have agency in deciding what ideas to reflect on deeply, if they have a community of fellow learners to bounce notions off of, if they have a chance to make something of their own and share it with the world, and if they’re invited to think about how the abstract religious concept has concrete, real-world implications for their everyday lives.

There will be time to flesh that ideas out a bit more thoroughly and with a bit more literature. But I think that’s plenty for today.

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