The nature and neurology of higher learning

We now turn to a consideration of the locus of action in education, the college classroom.  In addition to the contextual effects described already, each teacher brings many distinctive attitudes, opinions and biases to the classroom.  For some, their own educational experiences serve as potent and enduring reminders of the learning process.  However, for many others, the content of what was studied, sometimes long ago and far away, continues to frame their perspectives and understanding of the learning processes.  Several decades ago, I pursued my doctorate in experimental cognitive psychology.  I have had the privilege to profess, to teach, and continue to explore this and related topics ever since.  My study was built upon a human information processing foundation.  Its implications for critical thinking, higher learning and the nature of knowledge guide my pedagogy.  As will become apparent, cognitive psychology is a broad discipline with relevance to a variety of educational issues and many current academic concerns.  As Abraham Maslow once quipped, “When your favorite tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”   

“At heart, the mission of a university is to produce and disseminate knowledge” (Whittington, 2018, p. 13).  However, many educators support the notion that the purpose of higher education is not the particular answers it provides but in learning the process of inquiry and the evaluation of alternatives (Postman and Weingartner, 1969; Dyson, 1981; Bok, 2013).  Hannah Holborn Gray (2012), University of Chicago president from 1978 till 1993, offers a succinct summary of this perspective: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable; it is meant to make them think (p. 86).”

Allegiance to the primacy of process has many advantages and many advocates.  In my Introduction to the Behavioral Sciences course, most students learn that there are excellent examples supporting the conflicting sociological perspectives discussed previously.  Complex technologies have empowered contemporary societies to distribute more information more broadly than at any other time in history (Pinker, 2018).  Following from Postman and Weingartner (1969), I ask my students to become fully-fledged, first-rate “crap detectors” and turn arguments and evidence inside out in a search for bias and bluster.  Although technologically advanced media present atrocities vividly every evening, most individuals have a life expectancy and a degree of security that would have been considered extraordinary just 100 years ago (Pinker, 2012).  However, it is undeniable that some segments of the population, often based primarily on demographic characteristics, have benefited less than others and continue to suffer the effects of systemic oppression.  I seek to develop students who will be empathetic and both wise as well as courageous in making the world a better place.    

A primary purpose of higher education is to encourage and empower students to acquire the skills of discernment needed to identify and engage society’s most complex and important issues?  To be able to read with insight and act responsively and effectively.  Enhancing critical thinking, including the inclination and ability to ask good questions, would seem to be an essential goal despite continuing disagreements about what should be considered “correct” answers.  However, getting students to think differently has been an increasingly important but stubbornly elusive aim of education over much of the last century (Bok, 2013).

One of the most difficult things for college students is to relinquish (at least temporarily) claims to absolute and eternal truth and accept the idea that the complexity of the world and their own minds (viz., brains) make all knowledge contingent and contextual.  Developing in students a willingness to let knowledge and truth emerge from engagement with the material and one another facilitated by reflection and empathetic consideration has been a goal of all my courses.  Although, my political and religious inclinations are liberal, I’ve learned that it is best to encourage and engage ideas and perspectives from across a broad spectrum of beliefs.  John Stuart Mill (1859) explained the many benefits of free speech in acquiring greater knowledge of the world and all its phenomena.  From Mill’s utilitarian perspective, beliefs are consequential, and it is these consequences that allow us to evaluate the truth of alternative views and propositions. 

Contemporary philosophers suggest two alternative criteria for assessing the value and validity of knowledge: coherence (Young, 2018) and correspondence (David, 2016).  Basically, ideas are coherent if they complement the propositions we already hold to be true.  In contrast, correspondence is concerned with a proposition’s ability to predict outcomes from experimentation and observation (David, 2016).   From my classroom experience, I’ve learned it is important to persuade students to consider both these criteria.  

My pedagogy has been informed by my training as an experimental cognitive psychologist (Porter, 1991).  Studying under Donald Broadbent convinced me of the value and validity of viewing individuals  as information processing systems.  The 2002 Nobel Prize recipient in economic sciences, Daniel Kahneman’s, recent book, Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, explains that the characteristics of distinctly different channels of human information processing.  System One, explains “fast thinking” and is automatic and largely unconscious.  It is shared by nearly all mammals (Breuning, 2011).  In contrast, slow thinking involves conscious awareness and, typically, verbal mediation (self-talk).  Broadbent had also recognized this distinction in his contrast between attentionally Selected (slow) and automatic Unselected (fast) modes of information processing many years earlier. 

My doctoral dissertation (Porter, 1991) explored the relationship between these two information processing modes and different kinds of cognitive tasks.  I discovered that the attentionally selected, slow (conscious) mode of processing was necessary to deal with uncertainty (i.e., the occurrence of unexpected or random events) but was very susceptible to interference from other concurrent cognitive tasks.  This Selected mode of processing had difficulty with complex tasks.  In contrast, the fast (automatic) mode of information processing dealt with complexity well and was relatively immune to interference from concurrent cognitive tasks.  However, uncertainty rendered this more automatic and unconscious Unselected system ineffective.  Perhaps the most surprising finding in my research was that subjects could learn to master relatively complex tasks without conscious awareness or explicit understanding of the rules implied by the procedural knowledge they had internalized.  In the classroom, it is important to attend to all the things that were unspoken but were experienced directly as well as what was read and said explicitly .  Our biases and stereotypes are largely Unselected, despite our tendency to explain, justify, or excuse our actions using our Selected mode of processing, after the suspect behavior has occurred.

“Processing” information changes the brain.  Memes are stuffed with information.  Memes are patterns of information; they reduce uncertainty.  Neurologically speaking, memes are stored in the complex connections among neurons.  Current experience always involves what is already known. Memory is the residue of thinking; traces of “processed” memes persist.  Some of the information retained in our brains is accessible to consciousness and can be reported explicitly.  However, there is a great deal of information that is preserved within the system that is not accessible to consciousness.  Nonetheless, the absorption and retention of this “information” is implied by subsequent behavior.  Whether it can be explained or not, the informational residue is anything but random; it is highly organized.  The structures that frame this organization are referred to as schemas (Bartlett, 1932).  Had these complex structures been discovered today, they might have been referred to as memo-plexes.  Verbal materials are organized into explicit narratives, coherent clusters of propositions accessible for conversation and engagement.  Jonathan Gottshall’s (2012) intriguing exploration of the role stories play in our humanity, The Storytelling Animal: How stories make us human, provides many examples and illuminating explanations of the role of our narratives in shaping our collective as well as individual identities.  However, all information stored in the brain (both the verbal and the non-verbal) automatically influences the way we experience and interpret new sensations (Sulin & Dooling, 1974).

Learning does not take place by steady accretion and gradual increases in understanding.  Insight creates perturbations in the steady accumulation of knowledge.  As Piaget (1974) and others have found, cognition is not a gradual and continuous process.  Responsible for translating English Intelligence tests into French, Piaget was intrigued by the recurring patterns in the reasons children provided in their explaining “wrong” responses to questions.  Piaget discovered that cognitive development occurs through a series of predictable (and internally consistent) re-organizations of information which mark distinctive stages of human cognitive development.  He believed children are born with basic mental structures on which all later learning and knowledge are built.  Piaget’s work was focused on changes that occurred during the first dozen years of life, as children periodically restructure their information processing into stages that began with simple sensorimotor explorations of reality and eventually lead to a capacity to think about abstract concepts or ideas (i.e., “formal operations”).

A model of cognitive development in college students was proposed by William Perry (1970).  According to his model, most students arrive at college with clearly defined and distinct categories for selecting, sorting, and storing information into preexisting structures (i.e., dualism).  Effective education disrupts these childhood strategies; areas of black and white fade into shades of gray.  The child’s dichotomous view of the world soon gives way to a recognition that the world is more complicated.  Ambiguity is introduced, and students realize that there are different perspectives (i.e., multiplicity) and alternative values and methods for moving towards resolution as well.  Such crises of confidence (the idea that my way of viewing this problem may not be the best way) thus provides the beginnings of the intellectual humility essential to developing more sophisticated and effective ways of thinking.   The later stages of epistemological development involve a willingness to commit to certain values and principles despite the recognition that these beliefs may later be found to be inadequate or even fundamentally flawed.  King and Kitchener (1994), building on the ideas of both Piaget (1974) and Perry (1970), developed ways of assessing and enhancing the development of reflective judgments throughout the college years.  This pattern of development aligns well with Justice Holmes’ prediction that commitment to process and engagement would supersede commitment to the “fighting faiths” characteristic of late adolescence. In a sense, higher learning requires letting go of the confidence of childhood to gain the competence that comes with humility and the careful consideration of complex problems and many alternative potential solutions.

In Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses, Arum & Roksa (2011) provide evidence that many college students show no significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing ability.  Their analysis of an extensive study of 2,300 undergraduates at 24 institutions who completed the College Learning Assessment (CLA), revealed that 45% of these students showed no significant improvements in a wide range of cognitive skills over their first two years of college.  One might ask why children do not automatically and instantly begin developing the sophisticated cognitive skills necessary for critical analysis and thinking when given the opportunity.  Arum & Roska (2011) suggest that learning these skills is simply not a priority for modern, “corporate” institutions of higher education.  However, there may be other, additional reasons. 

For example, Breuning (2011) explains how our brain’s own biochemistry may thwart our cognitive development.  The complicated and technologically-sophisticated world we now inhabit, differs from the world that shaped the evolution of our ancestors over the eons.  Breuning suggests that the complex interactions between endorphins, hormones, and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine combine to attach us firmly to the other human beings, especially those we consider to be part of our tribe.  From an evolutionary perspective, those who maintained these bonds were the ones most likely to survive and reproduce.  We have inherited a strong preference to go along with the crowd and espouse the beliefs and values of the most significant others in our lives.  Thus, the kid from Appalachia arrives at Berea College with a head full of caveats and concerns about losing the faith and family that sustained her (or him) throughout life.  Also, once a student finds a new tribe, one with a more satisfying and relevant narrative, s/he may come to adhere to those beliefs just as adamantly as the beliefs associated with their birth family (Breuning, 2018).  Sometimes these cognitive shifts reflect cognitive progression.  However, in others, the apparent change is not an escape from dualistic thinking; it is just a refocusing of allegiance from the home family to a new tribe of “progressive peers and professors. 

It is difficult to measure the processes of accommodation which accompany significant cognitive shifts and transitions.  The use of course critiques may indicate where cognitive development is probably not occurring, but it is difficult to discover any single best solution to solving the puzzle of cognitive development.  These transitions seem to happen at different times and in different ways for different individuals.  Erik Erikson’s (1968) theory of psycho-social development suggests that maturation occurs through a series of “crises” that provide opportunities for insight and increased maturity and stability.  The identity crisis which tends to occur during late adolescence and early adulthood is a time of great inner turmoil.  Many cultures recognize this by providing a moratorium on adult expectations, allowing young adults to explore and examine alternatives before assuming the full responsibilities of adulthood.

Surreal times nationally combined with inherently fraught students, fueled by hormones, searching for meaningful attachments in a world of growing complexity, it is little wonder colleges and universities are places of great tension and continual consternation.  In some ways we should be grateful for evidence that anyone ever learns anything.  However, sometimes when we least expect it, evidence of success and authentic maturity and intellectual development give us hope that all is really not for naught. The following excerpt from former student arrived recently. Although such messages are not frequent events, they are nonetheless very encouraging.

“I also want to thank you. I want to thank you for inspiring my interest in psychology, but more importantly, I want to thank you for inspiring me. It’s only now that I’m beginning to understand what you attempted to teach in class every day. I always thought to myself, ‘What’s going on here? Why is Dave just letting the class go to chaos?’ I also wondered why the classes didn’t feel like psych classes. I was wondering why they didn’t feel like regular college courses. The answer?… Your classes weren’t average classes. They were classes in which students were to be mentally stimulated and excited. They were classes that students wouldn’t appreciate for years to come. They were classes that helped make me the person that I am today.”

Opportunity and privilege often combine to provide academic elders with unique gifts to contribute to colleges and universities.  Many changes have occurred in higher education over the last several decades and many more will undoubtedly occur over the coming years.  Considering what role those referred to as “old, white, guys” might play during this critical period could be to everyone’s benefit.         


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