Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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Title of course:  Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Neuroscience and the Classroom: Making Connections

Unit 5: Building New Neural Networks

Sections

Section 6:
Skill development

Previous: Section 5  |  Next: Section 7

Q: How do we build new skills and understandings?

Not only is a skill such as writing the result of an interaction of a web of skills that inform and support each other, but is also the result of a building process that resembles the classic children's construction game involving knobs joined by inserting sticks into holes to create various two- and three-dimensional structures.

Building a Skill System: Knobs and Sticks
Building a Skill System: Knobs and Sticks
As suggested by skill theory, cognitive development involves forming connections between units of skills to develop increasingly complex skills. The construction of a cube in the classic...  
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Building a Skill System: Knobs and Sticks

© SMG, adapted from Kurt Fischer, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Building a Skill System: Knobs and Sticks

As suggested by skill theory, cognitive development involves forming connections between units of skills to develop increasingly complex skills. The construction of a cube in the classic children's games using knobs and sticks serves as a good metaphor for this process. We first start with a single knob, then connect two knobs with a stick to form a line. We then connect lines to make a square, and then combine squares to make a cube. In this same way cognitive development is the process of developing increasingly complex skills through forming connections between simpler mental units.

Skill theory suggests that cognitive development involves building connections between skills and ideas, a process of coordinating skills into more complex mental units. For example, consider a baby learning to fill a cylinder with blocks.

Johanna and Her Mother

Johanna and Her Mother

At less than a year old, Johanna demonstrates how simple skills are combined to build more complex skills and how our ability to perform skillfully depends on context. Watch this video twice, first...

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Scaffolding: Johanna and Her Mother with Commentary

Scaffolding: Johanna and Her Mother with Commentary

Analyzing the interaction between Johanna and her mother, Prof. Kurt Fischer explains the role of scaffolding in learning. As students learn new skills and concepts, a teacher often helps by...

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The process begins at the most basic level with simple independent reflexes like grasping, looking, moving, or vocalizing (making a noise that signals some sort of need). Then two reflexes are coordinated so that the baby grasps a block in order to look at it, or stops vocalizing in order to move the block, or vocalizes in order to get mom to help.

Then, with time, practice, and more development, the baby coordinates these so that she stops vocalizing and grasps in order to look and move the block to the cylinder—a more complex set of coordinated actions to accomplish her goal. Or she vocalizes to get help so that she can look and move the block toward the cylinder. Finally, she stops vocalizing in order to move the block to the cylinder and then vocalizes so that mom will dump the blocks out of the cylinder. Then the baby can begin the process of filling it again. The baby now has developed a system of coordinated activities, goal-directed actions that allow her to fill a cylinder and to get help from her mother for the steps she cannot complete alone. This system is represented by the cube in the picture above.

This process of building skills (abilities or conceptual understanding) becomes (top)

(End of the first column online)

increasingly complex as we mature, moving from reflexes that are coordinated into actions (infancy), actions that are coordinated into mental representations (childhood into early adolescence), and representations that are coordinated into abstractions (early adolescence into early adulthood). Finally, in domains in which adults have significant expertise, abstractions can be coordinated into principles.

Developmental Cycles
Developmental Cycles
At each level, the process of building the system (the metaphorical cube) of coordinated skills is repeated so that at the start of each new tier, the cube from the previous tier becomes the single...  
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Developmental Cycles

© Adapted from Kurt Fischer, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Developmental Cycles

At each level, the process of building the system (the metaphorical cube) of coordinated skills is repeated so that at the start of each new tier, the cube from the previous tier becomes the single skill unit for the next tier. That is, simpler skills become absorbed or nested within more complex ones.

At each level, the process of building the system (the metaphorical cube) of coordinated skills is repeated so that at the start of each new tier, the cube from the previous tier becomes the single skill unit for the next tier. That is, simpler skills become absorbed or nested within more complex ones.

This model is intended to suggest that building new neural networks of skills and concepts depends on making connections between simpler elements in order to build more complex abilities and understanding. We move from perceiving and acting in the physical world, putting together several actions, to creating mental representations of the world that we can manipulate in our mind, and then move on to abstract concepts or principles that explain domains like algebra or the biology of learning. We move from actually adding blocks to a cylinder to being able to imagine putting blocks into the cylinder, at which point we understand the concept of blocks in a cylinder and can use language to refer to this concept. We move from counting the blocks as we put them into the cylinder to mentally adding 2 + 2, to understanding the difference between adding and subtracting, to making sense of the relationship between the addition-multiplication concept and the subtraction-division concept, and then it's on to solving for x.

On the surface, this process may sound, again, like a simple ladder, but it's really more like a set of Russian nesting dolls—simpler skills nested within more complex skills. From the perspective of teaching, the key is to understand how more complex concepts and skills emerge from the connections between the simpler pieces that comprise them. In order to become a good writer, what skills have to work together along the way? In order to write an essay about the significance of the policies of Andrew Jackson, what teams of abilities and understandings do my students need to have yoked together? For example, have my students understood Andrew Jackson's actions and their impact on different groups of people in the short term and over time? Have they, in fact, developed a meaningful and useful sense of what "significance" even means?

Of course, as we have seen, students' ability to write this essay also depends on two other critical variables: the web of skills each brings to the task and the level of support of the context in which each works. Judy and Bob created very different essays based on their particular skills and ways of looking at the world that resulted from their experiences. These are part of the contexts responsible for the quality of their essays. There were other factors, as well. Perhaps Bob worked in supportive conditions—in a quiet library—while Judy worked in the less supportive conditions of home—in the kitchen with her three little brothers running around and the television blasting from the living room. Given all these factors, it's not difficult to understand the inadequacy of the ladder as an image for learning.

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