Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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3. Building on What We Know - Cognitive Processing

Session Content Outline

Key Questions
  • How do we process information so that we can use it effectively later?
  • How can teachers organize learning to support student understanding?

Learning Objectives
  • Information processing – Teachers will understand how information is received, organized, and remembered.
  • Associations and connections – Teachers will become familiar with strategies for helping students to make associations and draw connections among concepts and for enhancing memory and information use.
  • Novices and experts – Teachers will understand how experts and novices differ in how they solve problems and use knowledge. Teachers will consider how to organize instruction to encourage the development of expert strategies.

Session Outline

How do we perceive and understand the world around us? How do we make sense of events and new information? What helps us to remember or forget? How do people think when they are solving problems? And why – and how – does an expert solve a problem more efficiently than a novice? In this session, we explore cognitive processing – the work we do to take in, organize, and make sense of new information. Teachers can assist students as they grapple with new ideas, organize, and communicate what they have learned.

How Does Experience Affect the Brain?

In How People Learn, Bransford and colleagues (2000) identify three major points about brain development that are important for education:

  • Learning changes the physical structure of the brain,
  • These structural changes alter the functional organization of the brain; in other words, learning organizes and reorganizes the brain, and
  • Different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times.

Learning and the Physical Structure of the Brain

As we interact with the world around us, nerve cells, or neurons, send and receive information to and from other nerve cells. Communication between neurons takes place across microscopic gaps, or synapses, and nerve impulses are transmitted neurochemically across these synapses. The neuron integrates the information received from the synapses, which in turn project information to other parts of the body, such as the muscles. This process is the basis of how we think, move, talk, and make sense of the world around us.

New connections are added to the brain in two ways:

  • Early in life synapses are overproduced,
  • Then some are selectively lost (or pruned) because they are not used.

More complex cognitive processing occurs in the cerebral cortex – the blanket of cells that covers the brain and is divided into lobes, each of which performs many different functions.

It is a common misperception that individuals' intelligence and brain development are entirely determined by biology. Education and experience do develop the brain.

Cognitive psychologists—those who study how we learn by conducting human experiments and observations—can help us to bridge understandings in neuroscience with implications for the classroom.

How Do We Perceive and Make Sense of the World Around Us?

We are constantly bombarded with stimuli and information, not all of which can be attended to at once. What is perceived and processed in the brain depends on several features of the stimulus as well as of the perceiver. Critical are –

  • what captures our attention – the visual, auditory, or other attributes of the stimulus that cause us to pay attention
  • how we selectively filter out aspects of the information that are unfamiliar or uncategorizable to us or that do not mesh with our expectations
  • how we organize the information in our brain, connecting it through associations with other things we know.

Individuals process information differently in the brain. For example, people learn through different pathways and modalities – visual, aural, kinesthetic – and with different kinds of representations. These differences pose a challenge for teachers, requiring that they represent ideas and information in ways that allow for different kinds of processing and figure out what will allow certain students to process information most effectively.

Many researchers attribute specific learning difficulties to problems that occur when the brain processes language and other visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information.

Learning disabilities take different forms – they are related to language comprehension and production, motor skills, social skills, and attention, for instance.

It is important for teachers to have skills and tools for observing and cataloging the kinds of tasks with which students seem to have difficulty, as well as those with which they have greater success, as a guide to curriculum planning and instructional adaptations.

How Do We Remember?
  • For learning to occur, facts, concepts, and ideas must be stored; connected to other facts, concepts, and ideas; and built upon. Cognitive theorists have studied the nature of memory to determine how and under what conditions people retain or forget information.
  • How can memory be enhanced? Researchers have found that information is stored in several forms – visual, verbal, and by its meaning. When physical, auditory, and visual stimuli are combined with symbolic materials like language or numbers, the ability to retrieve information is likely improved.
  • Research also demonstrates that when people are asked to remember a series of events or list of words, they will do better at recalling them if they create categories or meaningful connections among them, and if they "chunk" this information into smaller groupings.
  • Other strategies for enhancing the retrieval of learned material include overlearning, learning with understanding, and relating material to an organized knowledge base.
  • When the curriculum is organized in a manner that allows new material to build on earlier learning, and when new material is tied to what students already know, teaching effectiveness is increased.

How Do We Organize and Build Knowledge?
  • Perceiving and remembering are influenced by our prior experience, our expectations for a given situation, and our ability to make connections among ideas.
  • Cognition is cultural. The ways people categorize ideas, build knowledge, and reason are all influenced by the values and common activities of their culture.

Making Connections
  • The simplest kind of association is developing a connection between two ideas.
  • The way a set of new information is presented to students makes a difference in their learning and their ability to make new connections.

Developing Conceptual Knowledge
  • Throughout their lives, individuals develop more complex associations among words, concepts, and ideas. Cognitive psychologists call these "schemas" or general knowledge structures used for understanding and memory storage. Schemas consist of information, in an abstract form, of the associations we have with a word, concept, or idea, and they in turn connect with other schemas.
  • The schemas one brings to a learning experience – a person's background knowledge – influence what is learned and what is retrieved. Part of the teacher's role is to develop and enrich students' existing schemas and the ways their minds organize information.
  • As we develop understandings of concepts, we create new associations among ideas. One way to make these new associations visible to teachers and students is by creating a visual representation or diagram of the underlying features and structures of a concept.

Developing Explanations
  • Another way we build knowledge is through the construction of explanations about different phenomena. Individuals carry around "mental models," or explanations, in their heads for why things happen.
  • Mental models may come from students' intuitive theories – like theories of motion or theories of evolution – or they can be provided as a form of instruction by teachers or textbooks.
  • There are several ways teachers can support all children in organizing their learning, including those who experience challenges in cognitive processing.
    1. Teachers can structure the learning process.

      • Establish routines and procedures.
      • Simplify directions, cluster and sequence activities.
      • Demonstrate an idealized version of the task to be performed.
      • Organize and guide practice efforts.
    2. Teachers can organize information and help students organize what they are learning by taking appropriate steps.
      • Providing categories and labels for organizing information.
      • Providing alternative representations (e.g., pictures, metaphors, and analogies)
      • Using concrete examples of abstract ideas
      • Drawing attention to critical features or ideas
      • Using a multi-sensory approach to teaching: Providing opportunities for students to process and organize information through different pathways for input and output
      • Encouraging students to organize information by thinking out loud, talking with others, visualizing concepts, and making connections to personal experiences
    3. Teachers can identify students' strengths, preferences, prior knowledge, and experiences.
      • Identifying and building on students' preferences for information processing
      • Making connections to their prior knowledge and experiences
      • Using culturally familiar strategies for learning and responding
      • Using culturally familiar examples

Knowledge in Practice: How Do Experts Solve Problems?
  • One of the ways researchers have discovered differences in cognitive processing is by comparing experts and novices as they solve problems in specific domains. Asking an expert and novice to solve the same problem reveals important differences in information processing, the organization of knowledge, and reasoning.
  • Researchers have found that expert knowledge tends to be organized around core concepts or big ideas that guide their thinking and encompass a large number of interrelated facts or patterns.
  • Experts not only have acquired a great deal of content knowledge, but they also understand how to determine the contexts in which particular kinds of knowledge are useful.
  • Experts also use a number of different strategies to solve a problem.
  • Experts tend to check their solutions to problems and monitor their own work more frequently,
  • Conceptual understanding – that is, an understanding of the underlying ideas and relationships in a domain—influences what the learner pays attention to, what is remembered, and what kinds of errors are made in learning something new and with better results than novices.

Glaser (1992) suggests that teachers consider four strategies in designing experiences for students that will enable them to develop competence in solving problems:

  • Provide increasingly complex opportunities to practice solving problems
  • Create opportunities for self-monitoring
  • Encourage principled performance (e.g., help students link their schemas for problem types to specific problem-solving strategies
  • Consider the social context of learning


Attending to cognitive processing means taking into account and tapping into the often-invisible ways we develop knowledge, solve problems, and make sense of our worlds.

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