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Cognitive Science

Brain Science

The field of study called "Brain Science" or "Brain Theory" has received a lot of attention in recent years, and is of growing significance in both formal and informal education.

The field of study called "Brain Science" or "Brain Theory" has received a lot of attention in recent years. The field has made significant progress in the past five years (perhaps as much as in all previous years combined). Researchers and other writers in this field seem divided as to whether the field is well enough developed so that it can, at the current time, be contributing significantly to the design of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. There appears to be a growing trend to saying the answer is "yes."

Developmental Theory provides examples of research that are quite applicable to education. Piaget, as well as many others, have done research on stages of development. Piaget, for example, talks about a child beginning at the level of Sensory Motor, moving to Preoperational, then Concrete Operations and eventually reaching Formal Operations.

Huitt, W. and Hummel, J. (January 1998). Cognitive Development [Online. Accessed 2/28/02: http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/
col/cogsys/piaget.html. Quoting from the Website:
  1. Sensorimotor stage (Infancy). In this period (which has 6 stages), intelligence is demonstrated through motor activity without the use of symbols. Knowledge of the world is limited (but developing) because its based on physical interactions / experiences. Children acquire object permanence at about 7 months of age (memory). Physical development (mobility) allows the child to begin developing new intellectual abilities. Some symbolic (language) abilities are developed at the end of this stage.
  2. Pre-operational stage (Toddler and Early Childhood). In this period (which has two substages), intelligence is demonstrated through the use of symbols, language use matures, and memory and imagination are developed, but thinking is done in a nonlogical, nonreversable manner. Egocentric thinking predominates
  3. Concrete operational stage (Elementary and early adolescence). In this stage (characterized by 7 types of conservation: number, length, liquid, mass, weight, area, volume), intelligence is demonstrated through logical and systematic manipulation of symbols related to concrete objects. Operational thinking develops (mental actions that are reversible). Egocentric thought diminishes.
  4. Formal operational stage (Adolescence and adulthood). In this stage, intelligence is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts [emphasis added by Moursund]. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thought. Only 35% of high school graduates in industrialized countries obtain formal operations; many people do not think formally during adulthood.
  1. Developmental Theory is certainly applicable to learning mathematics. If we attempt to teach a math topic to a student who is far from being developmentally ready for it, the child tends to have little recourse but to attempt to "get by" by memorizing and regurgitating. Secondary school math teachers see this all the time, perhaps most especially in geometry courses and more advanced courses. The "Algebra for all." movement is suspect partly because it appears to be pushing many students into classes for which they are not mathematically developmentally ready. Algebra and Formal Operations seem to be closely related.

    The table given below is from Huitt and Hummel (January 1998).

    Notice that only 35% of students reach formal operations by the time they finish high school. This is suggestive that there is a substantial mismatch between our secondary school math curriculum and the developmental level of students.

    The references given below tend to support the "yes" answer. However, they also suggest that this is a vibrant and developing field, and that we can expect substantial progress in the years ahead. IT plays a major role both in the research and in the educational products that are based on the research. readers looking for an introduction to the field are well advised to read the two monthly columns referenced under Scientific Learning Corporation.

References

Brain Lab [Online]. Accessed 4/18/01: http://www.newhorizons.org/blab.html. Quoting from the Website:

Welcome to The Brain Lab. How would it affect educational systems if everyone truly believed that the human brain could change structurally and functionally as a result of learning and experience--for better or worse? How would it affect how we teach and how students learn if everyone believed that the kinds of environments we create for learning, how we teach, and the learning strategies we offer students could result in better mental equipment they will use throughout life? In the Brain Lab you will find articles that support the validity of this concept, as well as articles of current interest on various other aspects of brain research and its implications for education.

Brain Connection [Online]. Accessed 5/22/01: http://www.brainconnection.com/. Quoting from the Website:

BrainConnection.com is dedicated to providing accessible, high-quality information about how the brain works and how people learn. Many discoveries are being made in areas that relate to the human brain, including language, memory, behavior, and aging, as well as illness and injury. We believe that access to this information can provide practical tools for teaching and learning as well as valuable insights into almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Dana Foundation [Online]. Accessed 3/9/01: http://www.dana.org. Quoting from the Website:

At this site you will find information about the programs, activities, and publications of the Dana Foundation and the Dana Alliance, as well the latest news about the brain.

Dana.org serves as a gateway to brain information. Visit the Brain Information and Brain Web section to access general information about the brain and current brain research, and to link to validated sites related to more than 23 brain disorders. "Brainy Kids Online" offers children, parents and teachers a site with activities for younger children, puzzles, links to excellent educational resources, and lesson plan suggestions.

Harvard Undergraduate Society for Neuroscience [Online]. Accessed 3/9/01: http://hcs.harvard.edu.

Learning and the Brain [Online]. Accessed 5/22/01: http://valetc.com/learnandbrain.html. Quoting from the Website:

Bob Valiant has spent the past ten years following the very active field of brain research and its application to educational settings. Dismayed by much of what he saw being dished out to educators, he began to search for areas of agreement in the work of brain researchers and other cognitive scientists. The search resulted in a list of eight promising candidates for the basic theorems of learning. The listing was presented at an invitational lecture during the Learning and the Brain Conference at Harvard and MIT in May of 1999. Since that time he has developed a matrix of the eight propositions to use as a template to map the teaching strategies employed in a school or classroom. He can help your school identify areas of growth potential and provide you with the tools you need to realize that potential.

Huitt, W. and Hummel, J. (January 1998). Cognitive Development [Online]. Accessed 2/28/02: http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/
col/cogsys/piaget.html. Quoting from the Website:

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was one of the most influential researchers in the area of developmental psychology during the 20th century. Piaget originally trained in the areas of biology and philosophy and considered himself a "genetic epistimologist." He was mainly interested in the biological influences on "how we come to know." He believed that what distinguishes human beings from other animals is our ability to do "abstract symbolic reasoning." Piaget's views are often compared with those of Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), who looked more to social interaction as the primary source of cognition and behavior.

Miller, George A. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information [Online]. Accessed 10/28/01: http://www.well.com/user/smalin/miller.html.

This article is a classic, often quoted when discussing limitations of the human brain. Quoting from the introduction:
My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.

I shall begin my case history by telling you about some experiments that tested how accurately people can assign numbers to the magnitudes of various aspects of a stimulus. In the traditional language of psychology these would be called experiments in absolute judgment. Historical accident, however, has decreed that they should have another name. We now call them experiments on the capacity of people to transmit information. Since these experiments would not have been done without the appearance of information theory on the psychological scene, and since the results are analyzed in terms of the concepts of information theory, I shall have to preface my discussion with a few remarks about this theory.

Neuroscience for Kids [Online]. Accessed 5/16/01: http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/neurok.html. Quoting from the Website:

Neuroscience for Kids has been created for all students and teachers who would like to learn more about the nervous system. Enjoy the activities and experiments on your way to learning more about the brain and spinal cord.

"Neuroscience for Kids" is maintained by Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D. and supported by a Science Education Partnership Award (R25 RR12312) from the National Center of Research Resources.

Neurosciences on the Internet [Online]. Accessed 3/9/01: http://www.neuroguide.com/. Quoting from the Website:

A searchable and browsable index of neuroscience resources available on the Internet: Neurobiology, neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, psychology, cognitive science sites and information on human neurological diseases.

Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology [Online]. Accessed 3/9/01: http://www.sacklerinstitute.org/. The Sackler Institute is directed by Dr. Michael Posner, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who retired from the University of Oregon in June 2000. Quoting from the Website:

The Sackler Institute started in July of 1998. We have now grown to fifteen faculty and fellows in New York with collaborative programs at many institutions including Rockefeller University, Columbia University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, IBM, U.C. Irvine, Yale University, University of Oregon, and others. The Institute is supported by a generous donation from the Sackler family and by grants from NIMH, NSF, James S. McDonnell Foundation, Dana Foundation, Merck Fund, the Dewitt Readers Digest fund and other foundations and agencies. We are located in the Psychiatry Department of Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Scientific Learning Corporation [Online]. Accessed 3/9/01: http://www.brainconnection.com.Quoting from the Website:

Headquartered in Berkeley, California, Scientific Learning offers CD-ROM and Internet programs developed by leaders in brain research. The Company's Fast ForWord system of intensive computer-based training programs for language and reading "train the brain" to learn faster. These training programs use patented technologies to adapt to each student's skill level, allowing students of all ages to make gains in language and reading in just weeks, rather than years. Educators can use the Company's patented Internet technologies to track students' progress. Other Scientific Learning products include award-winning software and storybooks for building early learning skills and rapid assessment of reading skills, and ReWordª, a training program for adults to use to improve their language and organizational skills.

Within this site, many readers will find http://www.brainconnection.com/library/
?main=reviewhome/main to be particularly helpful. It contains information about a large number of books. It also contains two monthly columns:

Burns, Martha. Language and Reading in the Brain.

Dr. Martha Burns Burns is a senior clinical specialist at the Scientific Learning Corporation, and is a member of the faculties of the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.

Sylwester, Robert. Connecting Brain Processes to School Polices and Practices.

Dr. Robert Sylwester is a retired professor from the College of Education, University of Oregon, and he lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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