- Neurology challenges the metaphor frequently used in recent years that sought to compare the brain to a linear computer in favor of a far more flexible, self-adjusting, biological metaphor – the brain as a living, unique, ever-changing organism that grows and reshapes itself in response to challenge, with elements that wither through lack of use. Insights from the evolutionary sciences are starting to show how brain function has evolved over eons of time in ways that equip every new-born child with a kind of biological “power pack” of potential social and intellectual predispositions. Predispositions are best described as encoded sets of processes, ways of thinking, or of doing things which, through a set of mechanisms and processes as yet only partially understood, represent a set of inherited “appropriate practices” which are transmitted from generation to generation. Whether or not these are used within a specific generation depends entirely on the environmental challenge and other intrinsic motivations. Predispositions open up like “windows of opportunity” at stages of life which evolution has found are the most appropriate to the individual’s development. If not used at that stage then the window closes, the easy option is lost, and the brain grows in a different way.
- Human babies are born with an innate ability to learn language (any language) through “immersion” in the first four or five years of life. They have particular predispositions to learn social and collaborative skills by seven or eight and, we suspect, to carry out calculations shortly thereafter. We have evolved big brains so we are able to talk a lot, share ideas and develop fields of knowledge in common. With use our brains grow. Despite our dexterity with language we still seem to think in pictures – hence the significance of stories. We understand immediate crises better than long-term problems. We have at least seven forms of intelligence that help us make sense of our environment in different ways.
- The brain is adept at handling a variety of situations simultaneously. This makes it possible for each of us to react, moment by moment, to our immediate environment whilst also thinking about a number of abstract matters, while concurrently keeping ourselves alert to peripheral activity. The brain handles this complexity through several layers of self-organization whereby vast interconnecting networks are established; it is as if the brain is constantly “re-tooling itself” to work effectively in new and emerging situations. Once established, traces of these networks appear to survive almost indefinitely, and are frequently used as solutions to new problems. It is these earlier traces that give the brain its ability to build new ideas.
- The process of learning has passed from simple self-organization to a collaborative, social, problem-solving activity much dependent on talk, practical involvement and experimentation. We work better collaboratively than alone. We endlessly imitate people we respect. Unless we are able to form strong emotional bonds with relatively few people when we are young, it is probable that most of us will find larger, more loosely structured groups difficult to relate to. We relish the feeling of being part of a team. We are endlessly adaptable but, it seems, only up to a point. Driven to live in ways that are utterly uncongenial to our inherited traits simply drives people mad.
Just as we are undoubtedly on the brink of new understandings about learning, so too are we on the brink of radical developments in technology which are so fundamental that they hold the power to alter, not merely our education system, but also our work and our culture. At its roots, however, this technological revolution puts learning and conventional education systems on a collision course. The traditional role of education has, for too long, been predominately instructional and teacher moderated, but the essence of the coming integrated, universal, multi-media, digital network is discovery – the empowerment of the human mind to learn spontaneously, without coercion, both independently and collaboratively.
Knowledge About the Relationship Between Thinking Processes (meta-cognition), and the Development of Expertise
The process of learning is as old as life itself. It has passed from simple organization to a collaborative, social, problem-solving activity much dependent on talk, practical involvement and experimentation. If adults assume that learning and schooling are synonymous, young children certainly don’t. To them the world is open to endless investigation, and questioning, any of which they regard as legitimate. That is why streets that are unsafe for children to play around are as much a condemnation of failed policy, as are burned out teachers or inadequate classrooms.
Good as they are our natural predispositions to learn are no longer adequate to the needs of our present world. Ways have to be found of extending them so that we can “go beyond what comes naturally.”
This has to be the central issue. It is called meta-cognition, the ability to think about your own thinking, and the development of skills that are genuinely transferable and not tied to a single body of knowledge, and can therefore be applied in different settings. It is linked to a form of intelligence that is becoming known as reflective intelligence. In a world of continuous change this has to be the fundamental factor, so fundamental that it all too easily gets taken for granted…every learner has to be a reflective practitioner.
For years educationalists have debated the rival claims of so called progressive experiential-learning (assumed to be on the political Left), and discipline content-specific directed study (assumed to be on the political Right). Such polarization for too long has obscured the broad middle course which utilizes key ideas from both. Expertise is difficult to achieve without being a specialist, but it is much more than simply specialization. It requires the knowledge of much content, and the ability to be able to think about this both in the specific and the abstract. It is essentially that deep reflective capability that helps people of all ages break-out of set ways of doing things, unseating old assumptions, and setting out new possibilities.