One Wrong Move

Last week I spent two afternoons attending a seminar offered by a cognitive scientist. Now you would think teaching is a profession well-informed by those who actually know how the human mind works. After all, cognitive scientists have spent decades studying how the brain acquires, stores and retrieves information, not to mention all the ways things go haywire. Sadly, it just isn't so. A lot of us (including me) are ignorant of this storehouse of research, data, and insight. We think we understand how students learn, but sometimes we’re just dead wrong. Indeed, I discovered last week that an assumption I’ve long held about education (and championed) is, well, wrong.

For many years I’ve derided courses that stuff students with content rather than show them how to think with the content. The aim of a history class in the general education core, I have ranted to colleagues, should be to train students to think like a historian; the aim of a science class should be to train students to think within the disciplinary modes and evidentiary standards of science. It’s why they call it “a discipline.” The mind is disciplined to think one way and not any old way. Like I said, this turns out to be wrong, or half-wrong anyway.

Here’s why. Study after study in cognitive science reveals that cognition early in training is fundamentally different than cognition late in training. A good illustration of this is a study of chess players. The researchers set up a chessboard, gave both experts and novices a chance to study it, and then cleared the board and asked them to place the pieces as they were originally. The novices do this by clustering pieces in proximity to each other. They set up a group down in the right hand corner, then others in the left hand corner, etc. In short, they simply try to recreate their stored mental snapshot of the board.

Experts, however, think much differently about the positions of pieces on the board. They still put them back in chunks, but not because of their proximity. Rather, their chunks have to do with the pieces’ strategic relationships to one another within the game itself. Long practice has taught them to see the board funtionally within the rules of chess. The implication for teaching here is obvious. It’s very difficult to think like a historian or a scientist because these “experts” have had a long period of training. More importantly, though, they aren’t simply doing something a whole lot better than novices. They are actually doing something altogether different.

So it’s unlikely that students in a general education core class in history are going to be able to construct historical knowledge through an application of disciplined thinking. To require them to do so would be frustrating for the student and the teacher. What is possible is to get students to see and appreciate how experts create knowledge. They may not think scientifically, but they can understand and appreciate how scientists think.

So I was wrong. Sigh. Well, I always tell my students it’s far worse to persist knowingly in a mistake than it ever is to make one. On the other hand, I also discovered last week that one of my long-held suspicions of innate learning styles is correct. They're nonsense. But more on that another time.


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